If the Rugby World Cup in 2015 is the sport’s equivalent of a plush clubhouse, the reward for a hard day’s golf, then Stuart Lancaster’s England have reached the turn and on Saturday begin their back nine at Twickenham against Australia.
As ever, whenever the Wallabies are the opposition the most pressing question is how to best manage the Nine, the Aussies little pocket genius Will Genia, the major reason why the British Lions didn’t return from the Land Down Under with a Test Series whitewash.
While some of his team-mates are mere imitations of the greats who have previously worn the Green and Gold, Genia is a Wallaby for the generations, a player worthy of continuing the legacy of Nick Farr-Jones and George Gregan. If England can cage Genia, they will probably shackle the entire Australian team.
But that is just one of the many questions Lancaster and his team have to address in the next couple of seasons because having presided over 19 matches since becoming head coach, the Cumbrian now has as many behind him as he does ahead, before England kick off their RWC campaign in September 2015.
Logic suggests he should, therefore, be at least halfway through his work, putting together the right combinations and figuring out how to beat the other leading nations.
However, if we look at Lancaster’s recent selections, continue the example at No. 9, for instance. Lee Dickson, Ben Youngs and Danny Care have each started at least one of the last four matches. As in so many positions a clear first choice has not yet emerged in two years of looking.
Indeed rather than go through the shirts which are up for grabs for RWC 2015, it’s probably easier to identify the men who can be reasonably confident of filling them when the tournament kicks off. If anyone can be confident about anything in Test match rugby.
So who are the nailed on, first names on the team-sheet? If he was fit Alex Corbisiero might be one, the Northampton prop is a long way ahead of his rivals for the loosehead berth, at least while Andrew Sheridan remains in international exile. Strange given the way he atomised Census Johnston for Toulon at the weekend.
Owen Farrell appears to have a relatively clear run at fly half, at least until Lancaster takes a longer, harder look at Freddie Burns or a first glance at George Ford. And Mike Brown has established himself as the default full back. Until misgivings about a perceived lack of pace resurface.
Beyond that we are hoping rather than expecting, in fact two years on from their first match in charge at Murrayfield there is still not a single settled partnership in the England team. For the last ten years it seems the many Red Rose selectors have gone round in circles.
There were signs early on that Lancaster would end that merry-go-round. Like them or not Brad Barritt and Manu Tuilagi appeared to be the head coach’s preferred centre partnership, as they started 11 of his first 17 games. Both are now injured and the pretenders like Billy Twelvetrees, Henry Trinder, Joel Tomkins and Luther Burrell, have a chance to become contenders.
Lancaster could do a lot worse than return to the Barritt-Tuilagi pairing in the Six Nations if only because they are defensively sound and he has to start nailing down some of the variables if the evidence of the next 19 matches is not to be compromised and wasted.
He has to identify his locks, probably Courtney Lawes and Joe Launchbury, and stick with them. He has to decide whether Tom Youngs or Dylan Hartley is his first choice hooker, and he has to at least have in mind his preferred back row trio.
If Matt Kvesic is the classic openside England craves, get him in sooner, not later and allow him to learn in the Test match arena so that he is ready for anything Australia’s Michael Hooper or David Pocock throw at him in 2015.
So if these internationals are to be used for anything other than repaying the debt on Twickenham’s redevelopment, they must be viewed as one of the last chances to prepare to face teams England could meet in two years. We need to see a vision of that future in the next three weeks, even if there are a few bogeys en route.