Rugby World Cup 2015: Crunch time for England hopefuls

Stuart Lancaster
Stuart Lancaster has some big decisions ahead, not least the potential inclusions of Danny Cipriani and Sam Burgess
England v France
Date: Saturday, 15 August, 20:00 BST, Twickenham; Coverage: BBC Radio 5 live commentary (19:45 BST), BBC One highlights (23:40 BST)

So 50 became 46, which is now down to 39.

Stuart Lancaster has already made some tough decisions over the past few weeks when trimming his World Cup training squad, but the hardest calls are still to come for the England head coach.

England play two warm-up matches against France - at home on 15 August and away in Paris a week later - before the deadline for the final 31-man World Cup squad at the end of the month.

Lancaster chose to move his team announcement for the first France game forward by 72 hours to Monday in order to give the team maximum time to prepare, and for some players this weekend could be a final chance to impress.

These are the main dilemmas facing the England boss with a little over a month to go until the start of the World Cup.

Props - promise or pedigree?

Alex Corbisiero and Alex Brookes
Northampton's Alex Corbisiero and Newcastle's Kieran Brookes are likely to be fighting for a spot

England will take five props in the final squad, with three of them - Joe Marler, Mako Vunipola and Dan Cole - guaranteed a place.

David Wilson - an able deputy for Cole when the Leicester man was injured - is also likely to be included, and this would then leave a straight choice between Kieran Brookes and Alex Corbisiero.

Corbisiero has the pedigree and was outstanding for the British and Irish Lions in 2013, but has been beset by injury in recent years.

Brookes only made his England debut last summer, but has impressed the England management and - like Corbisiero - can play on both sides of the scrum.

Corbisiero is the favourite, but Brookes has his chance to stake a claim at Twickenham on Saturday.

Hooker - bolts from the blue

A few months ago, the hooker position looked crystal clear, with Tom Youngs and Rob Webber backing up Dylan Hartley.

However, Hartley's suspension and removal from the squad means there is a place available for either Luke Cowan-Dickie or Jamie George, assuming Webber's experience means he is included alongside first-choice Youngs.

England forwards coach Graham Rowntree is a fan of the promising 22-year-old Cowan-Dickie, who was named in the initial training squad.

But George - who has profited from Hartley's absence and was a Premiership winner with Saracens in May - could come from nowhere to make the 31.

Along with centre, this is perhaps the tightest call the England coaches will have to make.

Lock and back row - set in stone?

At lock, Joe Launchbury, Courtney Lawes and Geoff Parling will all make the squad, leaving a slot for Dave Attwood, George Kruis or - at a push - Nick Easter.

Attwood and Kruis formed a solid partnership at the start of the Six Nations and will both feature this weekend, while Easter may come into consideration with his ability to play both second row and number eight.

England head coach Stuart Lancaster has until the end of August to decide on his final squad
Lancaster has until the end of August to decide on his final squad

The only other man with similar versatility - Maro Itoje - didn't survive the first cut.

Five back-rowers will be named among the 17 forwards, and it's hard to look beyond James Haskell and Tom Wood alongside captain Chris Robshaw as the flankers, with Ben Morgan and Billy Vunipola the number eights.

One man who has an outside chance of forcing his way in is Northampton's Calum Clark, who makes his England debut on Saturday.

Backs and the Burgess conundrum

The choices at half-back are fairly straightforward. Ben Youngs, Richard Wigglesworth and Danny Care will be the three scrum-halves, injury permitting, with George Ford and Owen Farrell the fly-halves.

This is where it gets complicated.

Lancaster will almost certainly name all three of the wingers left in the squad - Jonny May, Jack Nowell and Anthony Watson - along with the two full-backs, Mike Brown and Alex Goode.

This leaves four centre spots free among the 14 backs, two of which will be Brad Barritt and Jonathan Joseph.

This leaves places available for two of Henry Slade, Luther Burrell, Billy Twelvetrees and league convert Sam Burgess. Burrell is ahead of the other three and likely to be included.

Lancaster, along with backs coach Andy Farrell, is a fully paid-up member of the Burgess fan club, and would love to have him involved in the final squad.

But can the management justify his inclusion over the likes of Slade or Twelvetrees, especially if Burgess has a quiet debut against France on Saturday?

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Sam Burgess says changing positions is 'not difficult'

If Twelvetrees misses out, and with Kyle Eastmond already jettisoned, England look short of a ball-playing option at inside-centre, although Burrell performed there competently during the Six Nations, while Farrell could also fill the role of second playmaker if required.

However, it's hard to look beyond a midfield axis of Ford, Barritt and Joseph for the tournament opener against Fiji on 18 September.

Slade's inexperience will count against him, but his versatility and promise will do the opposite, and like Burgess he can lay down a marker at Twickenham this weekend.

Meanwhile, Lancaster could still throw a curve ball and include Danny Cipriani over Saracens full-back Goode, although this would leave the squad with only one specialist full-back in Brown, who hasn't played since March.

Either way, expect Cipriani - who will start on the bench on Saturday - to feature at number 15 at some stage during the warm-ups.

Countdown starts here

A meticulous planner, Lancaster will have had his preferred 31-man squad in his mind for some time, and even now it's likely he will know the vast majority of the players he will take to the World Cup.

But the next few weeks will still be instrumental when it comes to deciding the final couple of places, and that's before the great imponderable - injuries - are thrown into the equation.

At long last, England's World Cup build-up has begun in earnest.

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