RBS Six Nations 2014 - England preview

Last Updated: 30/01/14 11:36pm

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Runners-up for the past two seasons, Stuart Lancaster enters this year's tournament with big decisions to make at scrum-half, centre and wing.

The likes of Luther Burrell, Anthony Watson and Richard Wigglesworth have all caught the eye while playing for their clubs and could add some much-needed spark into a backline that failed to fire during the autumn internationals.

Owen Farrell bore the brunt of the criticism for England's attacking shortcomings during November, which has led to calls for the inclusion of Bath's in-form fly-half George Ford. The pair played together for England at U20 level, where Farrell played at 12, but Lancaster is likely to stick with the Saracens man as he continues to build for next year's World Cup.

England face a difficult start against a French side that will be hell-bent on atoning for a dismal 2013, and Lancaster may resist blooding any debutants in the Stade de France. However, victory in Paris would set them up nicely for a championship push.

The return of Brad Barritt from injury is a timely boost and should ease some of the pressure on Farrell's shoulders, while centre partner Manu Tuilagi could be in contention for latter stages of the competition.

The England pack were blown away by Wales last year but their performance in the November defeat to New Zealand proved they can compete with the best in the world. Hooker Dylan Hartley also looks to have confronted his demons following a tumultuous 12 months and is arguably in the best form of his career.

England will have their mettle tested by Scotland at Murrayfield and Ireland at Twickenham but if they emerge unscathed from those contests, it sets up a potential championship decider with Wales.

Lancaster has lost just two Six Nations games since taking over and both came against Warren Gatland's men. Victory for the England coach at the third attempt would help ease the pain of last year's 27-point hammering and also strike a psychological blow ahead of the 2015 World Cup meeting between the sides at the same venue.

England
Last season: 2nd
Head coach: Stuart Lancaster: "You would never approach a game against France, or any Six Nations match, as an experiment because you want to win. It's a results-based business. There are no friendlies in international rugby. You can't see a game as a trial. The players have to be ready.
Captain: Chris Robshaw: "If you look at the core group it's very experienced, it's been playing together for two seasons. We've come along way. In every tournament we continue to improve, although we haven't quite finished it off. There are still areas to improve on."
Ground: Twickenham Stadium, London
Sky Bet odds: 12/5
Fixtures: Feb 1 v France (a), Feb 8 v Scotland (a), Feb 22 v Ireland (h), Mar 9 v Wales (h), Mar 15 v Italy (a)

Key man: Tom Wood

Key man: Tom Wood - He may have missed out on the England captaincy but Wood remains a talismanic figure for England. The Northampton back row is a decent lineout option and is dogged at the breakdown, while his pace can cause problems in the midfield channels. Wood is a versatile, combative figure and not afraid to get stuck in, and has developed a good understanding with Robshaw. Should England's backline continue to falter, he will again be required to make some hard yards.

Squad:
Forwards: Attwood (Bath), Cole (Leicester), Hartley (Northampton), Kvesic (Gloucester), Johnson (Exeter), Launchbury (Wasps), Lawes (Northampton), Marler (Harlequins), Morgan (Gloucester), Mullan (Wasps), Robshaw (Harlequins), Slater (Leicester), Thomas (Sale Sharks), B Vunipola (Saracens), M Vunipola (Saracens), Webber (Bath), Wood (Northampton), Youngs (Leicester)
Backs: Ashton (Saracens), Barritt (Saracens), Brown (Harlequins), Burrell (Northampton), Care (Harlequins), Dickson (Northampton), Eastmond (Bath), Farrell (Saracens), Ford (Bath), Goode (Saracens), May (Gloucester), Myler (Northampton), Nowell (Exeter), Twelvetrees (Gloucester), Youngs (Leicester), Watson (Bath), Wigglesworth (Saracens).

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