It's that time of year (well, every four years) where it's ok for grown ups to start getting just a bit excited. And nervous. Like a kid before Christmas who is unsure if their mum picked up on multiple dropped hints for a playstation, or if she will just go ahead and get swept up by the latest Furby craze. Testing times indeed. And it's also that time of year when coaches tend to enter silly season; when the injury-prone, the unreliable, the discarded and the wildcards all get a chance to show what they're made of and force their way into World Cup plans.
Of course, we can all see the benefit of warm up games for match fitness and 'trying combinations', but when England take on France at Twickenham on Saturday it's worth remembering that there is one question that everyone is looking to see answered. Sure, we have our injured (Ben Morgan), our unreliable (Danny Cipriani) and our discarded (Jonny May) making their cases, along with a number of fringe players, but the guy we're all looking at is Sam Burgess. Again. Just when it looked as if he was turning into very handy blindside flanker, Stuart Lancaster has pulled out the old 'square peg in a round hole' conundrum and is trying to shoehorn the Bath man into that 12 shirt.
There are several reasons why inside centre isn't the best spot for Burgess, which I've delved into elsewhere, but that isn't to say he can't do a job - and an effective one - in that position. I've heard some people say that it's too late for anyone, even a man of Burgess' stature, to make the World Cup squad, having never played test match rugby before, but that's nonsense - remember Manu in 2011? That giant, gumshield wearing, ferry jumping, wrecking ball of a man was just about England's standout in the showpiece event, despite only making his debut in the warmups. England miss him now - and they want Burgess to step into his shoes.
Of course, aside from Burgess, there are plenty of other selections which catch the eye - the debuts of Henry Slade and Luke Cowan-Dickie (from the bench) will certainly be worth a watch, and Calum Clarke makes his debut as well - although it's unlikely he'll make the final cut. It's probably fair to say, in fact, that the debut of Slade carries far more significance in terms of long term England prospects, but he's not a headline maker at the moment. The form and fitness of Gloucester duo Johnny May and Ben Morgan, as well as Kieran Brookes, will also be of huge interest to the coaches but make no mistake - this is a line up to look at Sam Burgess. There's no real game-breakers in the side, with the exception of Watson and May - rather it's a side designed to play simple and accurate rugby; a much easier model to measure Burgess in than the thrillingly chaotic and ambitious efforts we saw in the Six Nations.
As for the French? Well, I could talk about the French in these warm-up games, but we all know it would be completely pointless. By the time the World Cup starts, there'll be a completely new first choice team and the players who looked great before will be woefully out of form, and vice versa. And they'll still be serious challengers. That's the French way.
For England though, it's crunch time. Results day may have just passed, but for these boys, the exams have just begun.
England Team News
Stuart Lancaster hands debuts to Sam Burgess, Henry Slade and Calum Clark, with Luke Cowan Dickie also due to win his first cap off the bench. The recalled Alex Goode and Johnny May both have chances to impress after being dropped during the Six Nations, Kieran Brookes can nail a front row spot with a big display, whilst Ben Morgan completes his comeback from a broken leg to start at number 8. Tom Wood captains the side from blindside.
Starting Line-up: Alex Goode; Anthony Watson, Henry Slade, Sam Burgess, Jonny May; Owen Farrell, Richard Wigglesworth; Mako Vunipola, Rob Webber, Kieran Brookes, George Kruis, Geoff Parling, Tom Wood (c), Calum Clark, Ben Morgan.
Subs: Luke Cowan-Dickie, Alex Corbisiero, David Wilson, Dave Attwood, James Haskell, Danny Care, Danny Cipriani, Billy Twelvetrees
Ben Morgan. Well, I've already banged on about Sam Burgess and I'll bang on some more below, so for the sake of variety, I will focus on the player who probably holds the key to actually winning this game. After so long out, how long he actually stays on the field for is up for debate, but when he's in his game he's one of the most destructive ball carriers in world rugby. Him and Billy Vunipola seem to be pushing each other to new heights, which is great for England, but it also means that Morgan needs to hit the ground running if he is to force his way into the starting line up. If he can do that, then his ability to always make yards, bounce off defenders and hit smart lines should set a positive platform for England to win from.
France Team News
I can't say, because the French have gone all 'French' again and decided to name the squad only the day before the game - I.e. Not at the time of writing. Mavericks. Since there's no team, I'll simply comment as if it's a typical Phillipe Saint-Andre selection.
"Saint-Andre had made a several eyebrow raising selections ahead of the warm-up game against England. Concern over the experience levels of the backline has seen the legendary Serge Blanco recalled from retirement despite his heavy smoking, back problems and inability to get up his stairs without having a breather. Using his desire for a 'more direct approach' as justification, prop Vincent Debaty is selected at fly half, making his first appearance since under 8s in the 10 shirt, whilst Napoleon Bonaparte has been resurrected to provide some real dog at the breakdown from openside".
Well, see above. But in all seriousness, if France want to become a force again they need a fly half who can run a game with authority and poise, as well as an ability to take the ball to the line. Whether they select Remi Tales (talent), Francois Trinh-Duc (remember him? Good player) or Freddie Michelak (sigh...although I hear he's not in contention to start this one) they have to bring some sort of gainline threat and decisiveness to the French game plan. If they are being told by coaches to stand 10 metres back from the gainline, as they seem to have been over the last few years, ignore them. The outrageously talented backs outside them stand no chance when they get the ball 15 metres back with a wall of concentrated defenders facing them.
Sam Burgess v whoever. Fofana and Basereaud are rested, but Rémi Lamerat, Alexandre Dumoulin and Gael Fickou (in particular) are all decent footballers who will provide their own pressure on the ex-rugby league international. Henry Slade, himself on debut, will also be tested by the opposition but, with his game management skills, his big job will be more focused on constantly talking to his inexperienced partner in crime. If Burgess stays focused and avoids rushing up in defence he'll be fine, but he also needs to make sure that he does in job in attack - and, as a ball carrying 12, that means timing his runs and picking his lines better than he did in that slot for Bath.
Well who knows with one of these warm up games. Nobody quite knows how the other is going to approach it but, seeing as this looks like an England side with an experienced and efficient spine, I think they'll get a decent win - especially when you take home advantage into account. England by 12.