Lancaster set to name elite squad
The depth of Stuart Lancaster's loyalty to Chris Ashton will be tested on Thursday when England's head coach names his new elite player and Saxons squads.
Ashton's selection throughout this year's RBS 6 Nations was based on reputation and a lack of established alternatives with the misfiring Saracens wing's defence the area of gravest concern.
The 26-year-old was one of five high-profile players rested for the tour to Argentina alongside Chris Robshaw, Brad Barritt, Danny Care and Toby Flood.
The quintet were assured by Lancaster before and after the 2-0 series victory over the Pumas that they would feature in the EPS squad for the autumn internationals.
Only two dedicated wings were included among the 33 named in January, but both could be axed as patience has run out with David Strettle while Ashton's ongoing presence hangs in the balance.
Major pressure is being applied by Marland Yarde and Christian Wade, who excelled in South America last month and have finally provided Lancaster with options in what has been viewed as a problem position.
An indication of how far Ashton's stock has fallen is evident from the decision by the British and Irish Lions to prefer Wade as an injury replacement midway through their tour to Australia.
Even Shane Williams was favoured by a Lions management that included England assistant coach Andy Farrell when the number of injuries hit crisis point, although the former Wales wing's presence in Japan was instrumental in his selection.
Lancaster was hugely impressed by Yarde and Wade and must decide whether to promote both at the expense of Ashton and Strettle, or keep faith with Ashton and drop Alex Goode who is out until October after undergoing shoulder surgery.
Other changes to the EPS' backs are likely to be minimal with Kyle Eastmond potentially replacing Jonathan Joseph, although this would leave Lancaster with three inside centres and only one 13 in Manu Tuilagi.
The forwards, who make up 18 of the 33, could see a handful of changes, among them Matt Kvesic's promotion to the EPS after he emerged as one of the stars of Argentina.
Kvesic is a more traditional openside than Robshaw and he will compete with the Harlequins back row for the number seven jersey for the forthcoming Tests against Australia, Argentina and New Zealand.
The captaincy will be named closer to the autumn, but Robshaw could lose out to Tom Wood, who filled the post in South America.
It is doubtful that number eight Thomas Waldrom will continue among the 33 with Billy Vunipola likely to make the step up from the Saxons.
Northampton hooker Dylan Hartley may finally have exhausted Lancaster's patience, potentially creating an opening for Rob Webber who captained England against the Barbarians in May.
Hartley is out until September 1 following his latest brush with the disciplinary authorities which resulted in an 11-week suspension for verbally abusing referee Wayne Barnes in last season's Aviva Premiership final.
Only three locks - Geoff Parling, Joe Launchbury and Courtney Lawes - were included in January and their number could be bolstered by the addition of Dave Attwood, who was outstanding in Argentina.
Some of those capped this summer could find themselves named as Saxons, but Lancaster has made it clear they could still be involved this autumn.
"I can't think of a time when I have not been able to promote a Saxon to the senior side when the autumn internationals come around," he said last month.
"There's always an injury and there's always a way. For example if Kyle was in the Saxons and he was on fire, built on the back of his tour and deserved to be playing then we would find a way."