England are going to have one hell of a fight on their hands if they are going to win the Rugby World Cup on home soil next year.
The nation’s initial rejoicing at having the 2015 tournament in Britain has since been slowly subdued by the realisation of the tough job England are going to have to qualify from the group.
Hosts England have been drawn alongside Wales, Australia and now Fiji - who qualified for the competition at the weekend with a record 108-6 victory over the Cook Islands.
All three teams are heavyweights of the international game with world beaters in their side who could put in the type of performance that could shock England on the day.
Now the penultimate international season before the start of the tournament has come to an end it is interesting to review where England are and where Leicester’s players lie in rankings.
England’s season has been much like Leicester’s in many ways, close but no cigar. If we were grading both Lancaster and Cockerill’s men their efforts would probably have earned them a B grade.
England won 6 and lost 5, although four of those losses were to World Champions New Zealand.
Leicester did much better, excluding pre-season Tigers played 33 games last season, including the Aviva Premiership, Heineken Cup and LV= Cup, winning 21, losing 10 and drawing twice. However they lost too many key matches by narrow margins, including the Heineken Cup quarter-final against Clermont and Aviva Premiership semi-final against Northampton.
Both will need to improve come the new season.
The great news is both England and Leicester are developing some strength in depth. But with the World Cup just 14 months away how many Tigers will be a part of that England squad?
At the moment there is perhaps only one Leicester name which could not be left off the teamsheet and that is Manu Tuilagi. At just 23 he is one of the game’s most deadly attackers, scoring in 44 per cent of the international matches he plays in, with 11 tries in 25 Tests.
Next in line are a host of Leicester players who have a massive 14 months ahead of them to cement starting spots rather than being squad members.
After a remarkable pair of performances against New Zealand Geoff Parling has overcome a season of injury turmoil to do the unthinkable and dislodge the partnership of Courtney Lawes and Joe Launchbury in the England second row.
He put aside concerns over his size by being the most dominant, active and athletic lock on the field in the series against the All Blacks.
Those hoping to have a comeback on the same scale as Parling are flanker Tom Croft and prop Dan Cole.
Croft remarkably returned from knee ligament damage for the final games of the season and should be in the hunt for a back-row spot for the national team next season.
Cole has perhaps a tougher job to wrestle back his starting spot as he is unlikely to fully recover from surgery on his neck until after the autumn internationals, giving him probably less than 10 months to earn his place. However Cole has been firmly first choice tight head for the last couple of years and despite the good work of David Wilson and Joe Marler in New Zealand is favourite to get back into the starting XV.
Also in the front row British Lion Tom Youngs has his work cut out to even get into the squad at hooker after an impressive series from Bath’s Rob Webber. Webber did what both Youngs and his main rival Dylan Hartley have struggled to recently, providing excellent lineout ball. Youngs is better around the field than both men but the line out is such a vital component of the top flight game.
Scrum half Ben Youngs has a real fight on his hands to claim the nine shirt ahead of Danny Care and Lee Dickson. He needs to have an injury-free season and needs to improve the quality of his pass to add to his much improved kicking game and ability to make breaks.
If Freddie Burns fits right into the Leicester framework next season he too could be a key part in England’s attempt at taking the title in 2015. Burns will first have to dislodge up-and-coming Welshman Owen Williams who will be wanting plenty of first team action as he goes for a Welsh jersey.
Burns should flourish playing behind a dominant pack but has a long way to go to dislodge Saracens’ Owen Farrell and probably Bath’s George Ford.
There are also a handful of players on the periphery who need a frankly mammoth year to convince the loyal Lancaster of their worth.
Leading the contenders is Tigers lock Ed Slater who could add some extra beef to the England pack against some fearsome opponents. Lancaster now has such a large pot of players to select from it might be a case of picking horses for courses. Parling can help you beat Australia and New Zealand who are all about pace and skill, but Slater will win you matches against Wales and South Africa when England need locks who don’t know how to take a backward step.
Other Leicester wildcards for selection are: second row Graham Kitchener, full back Mat Tait, centre Anthony Allen and Miles Benjamin. All four men would need to have an outstanding season playing regularly for a winning Leicester team to dislodge the two or three players currently in front of them in the pecking order. What is for certain is that players in every position have a lot to play for next year.