It is hard to remember the last time an England squad contained so many impressive contenders for places - a surefire sign that they are heading in the right direction.
After head coach Stuart Lancaster trimmed his squad to 25 players ahead of this weekend's game against Ireland in Dublin, some tough decisions have already been made. Ben Foden, who has returned to full fitness, has been axed despite being a genuine contender for a starting berth either on the wing or at full-back. Many observers felt Mike Brown and Alex Goode had poor games against Scotland, and Foden can count himself unlucky to be out of the reckoning already.
Freddie Burns, also returning from injury, is another to miss the cut. This may be because Lancaster wants him to get some game time under his belt at Gloucester - but he has nevertheless fallen to third in the fly-half pecking order after Owen Farrell played a blinder at the weekend and Toby Flood showed some nice touches when he came on.
With Manu Tuilagi, Brad Barritt and Billy Twelvetrees all retained, the most intriguing selection dilemma - that in midfield - is yet to be resolved. Each man has their merits, and the combination selected will say a lot about England's intentions ahead of the game.
Twelvetrees and Tuilagi is surely the combination of the future. The former took to international rugby like a duck to water last weekend, and the latter is a world-class talent. Twelvetrees's willingness to attack the gain-line, allied to his excellent offloading and distribution, mean Manu Tuilagi could be put in plenty of space - a frightening prospect for any defence.
The only thing this pairing lacks, perhaps, is defensive awareness. And the one man you do not want lining up opposite you if you might find yourself out of position defence-wise is Brian O'Driscoll. On Sunday he will sniff out the slightest misalignment and glide into it - before England know it, they could be back behind their own posts with Ireland celebrating.
So the argument for Barritt is that, whilst he doesn't have Twelvetrees's distribution or Tuilagi's raw power and menace, he is an excellent defender. If there is one man in England you would put your money on to shackle O'Driscoll, it would be Barritt. The temptation to keep him in the team will be strong.
Neither Twelvetrees or Tuilagi deserves to be sat on the bench, but Lancaster may decide that the sight of Tuilagi warming up after 60 minutes when Ireland's legs are starting to tire and bodies beginning to bruise will be a frightening one for the hosts.
This leads nicely to another area of intrigue: the back row. The most notable inclusion in the trimmed-down squad is Billy Vunipola, the giant Wasps No.8. You would be hard-pressed to think of two better impact subs than he and Tuilagi - genuine game-changers.
However, Thomas Waldrom has also been retained - if England are winning a close game after 60 minutes, he is the perfect man to come on and steady the ship.
Dilemmas abound, then. For once, though, they are nice ones to deal with for England.
- Sports & Recreation
- Stuart Lancaster
- Manu Tuilagi
- Billy Twelvetrees