England head coach Stuart Lancaster will study the looming two rounds of Heineken Cup action intently as he finalises plans for the autumn with the captaincy and midfield among his most pressing issues.
Flankers Chris Robshaw and Tom Wood are duelling for the leadership duties against Australia, Argentina and New Zealand with their form for Harlequins and Northampton over the next two weekends shaping Lancaster’s thinking.
While Wood is certain to start at six in the injury-enforced absence of Tom Croft, Robshaw’s position is less certain with Matt Kvesic of Gloucester challenging for his position in the team.
Lancaster will make a decision on the captaincy when the squad gathers in Leeds on 21 October, explaining that the need to assess form and fitness demands he leaves it as late as possible.
Robshaw was rested for the summer tour to Argentina and amid suggestions Lancaster would rather select a more traditional openside in the Kvesic mould, the Harlequins skipper has started the season strongly.
“I have always been comfortable playing Chris at seven. He has delivered for England on a consistent basis,” he said. “No-one can say that in any of the games he played for England he didn’t do that.
“I would have no problem going into the autumn internationals playing Chris at seven. He hasn’t done anything wrong as captain that’s for sure.”
England’s midfield also requires an overhaul after Brad Barritt and Manu Tuilagi were ruled out of the autumn because of foot and chest injuries.
Billy Twelvetrees is in pole position to start at inside centre, although Lancaster acknowledged Northampton’s Luther Burrell as the Aviva Premiership’s form player in the position.
Outside centre is a three-way tussle between Joel Tomkins, Jonathan Joseph and Henry Trinder.
Along with Northampton’s rampaging number eight Sam Dickinson, Trinder is missing from the elite player and Saxons squads, but Lancaster indicated that a way would be found to make them available for selection this autumn.
“It’s a challenge, but it can be achieved. It’s not been achieved yet,” he said. “I’m hoping that if that was the case, there wouldn’t be any objections to it because surely rugby decisions come first.”
England face a challenging autumn bookended by the series’ two prestige fixtures that will offer a useful gauge of where the squad stands two years out from the World Cup.
Australia have been poor this year but showed signs of revival in Saturday’s 54-17 rout of Argentina, while New Zealand’s 38-27 win in South Africa was a high-quality encounter between the world’s two strongest teams.
Lancaster insists the key to England’s autumn is a triumphant start against the Wallabies. “I saw Australia’s performance in Argentina. It was really strong – as good as I’ve seen this season,” he said.
“If we get too far ahead of ourselves we will be in trouble. Our priority is focusing on Australia, who have found their feet again after a long run of games together.”
Concluding the autumn schedule at Twickenham are New Zealand on 16 November, a fixture that sets pulses racing following last year’s 38-21 mauling of the All Blacks.
“They are the benchmark, not just for teams in rugby but sporting teams in the world in terms of their consistency,” Lancaster said. “The consistency of performance they’ve put in has been exceptional.”