RugbyU: Launchbury fit as England make four changes

Joe Launchbury will start England's decisive Six Nations clash against Wales after passing a late fitness test ahead of Saturday's Grand Slam showdown at the Millennium Stadium.

Wasps lock Launchbury injured his elbow in England's 18-11 win against Italy but he has recovered to retain his place in a side, announced by coach Stuart Lancaster on Thursday, that features four changes for the Six Nations title decider.

Tom Croft will start at blindside flanker in only his seventh appearance since returning to action after recovering from a broken neck that almost left him paralysed.

Croft has replaced James Haskell, Joe Marler has reclaimed the loosehead prop position from Mako Vunipola and England will start with Owen Farrell and Ben Youngs at half-back.

Farrell missed the game against Italy with a thigh strain but he was passed fit on Monday and returns to the team in place of Toby Flood, with Youngs replacing Danny Care at scrum-half.

"We have come a long way through the international series and the Six Nations and we want to finish well on what will be a fantastic occasion in Cardiff," Lancaster said.

Launchbury's presence is a significant boost for Lancaster as he has developed into a key figure for England this season.

His importance was clear to see as he was given until Thursday to prove his fitness after hyper-extending his elbow against the Azzurri.

For the most vital team announcement of his tenure, Lancaster's biggest decision was in the back row and he has opted to bring Croft back into the starting line-up for the first time in 12 months.

In April of last year he suffered a triple break to the C6 vertebra and a burst disc when he mistimed a routine tackle on Harlequins number eight Nick Easter.

The Leicester flanker was told later that he had come as close to being paralysed as it was possible to be but he made his comeback for the Tigers on January 4.

After being given medical clearance to play every week, Croft was immediately recalled by England and he came off the bench against Italy.

"Tom's extra lineout presence will hopefully give us an advantage. He is clearly a quality player and he has had a great impact since he has come back into the team," Lancaster said.

Although Flood kicked all of England's points against Italy, Farrell has reclaimed the fly-half jersey after shaking the thigh injury he sustained against France.

The Saracens fly-half was below par in his last outing, but Lancaster hopes he will provide an valuable cool head in the red-hot atmosphere in Cardiff.

"Clearly Wales will target that area and they will be coming down that channel and I am sure Owen will be ready for some work. We have got a big challenge coming our way but we will be ready for it," Lancaster said.

England are chasing their first Grand Slam in a decade but Wales can still retain the crown as well.

With so much at stake, Lancaster takes heart from England's impressive away record in the Six Nations during his reign.

He believes those experiences and the memory of beating New Zealand at home in December will stand his men in good stead.

"When you look at this Welsh side, there are not many weaknesses," Lancaster said.

"It will take an outstanding effort but we have done it before, we have been to away games and won.

"We have to deal with the occasion and play with composure and accuracy. There is a quiet self-belief."

England team announced on Thursday to play Wales in their final Six Nations match in Cardiff on Saturday (kick-off 1700GMT):

(England 15-1)

Alex Goode; Chris Ashton, Manu Tuilagi, Brad Barritt, Mike Brown; Owen Farrell, Ben Youngs; Tom Wood, Chris Robshaw (capt), Tom Croft; Geoff Parling, Joe Launchbury; Dan Cole, Tom Youngs, Joe Marler

Replacements: Dylan Hartley, David Wilson, Mako Vunipola, Courtney Lawes, James Haskell, Danny Care, Toby Flood, Billy Twelvetrees.

smg/ak