Autumn Internationals 2014: Stuart Lancaster sweats on Owen Farrell fitness for backs revamp

Rokoduguni set for England debut against All Blacks but other changes hinge on No 10 impressing for Saracens

Click to follow

Stuart Lancaster and his fellow England coaches are tempted to field a new-look back division when the world champion All Blacks attempt another sack of Twickenham in a little over a fortnight’s time, but fitness concerns over the outside-half Owen Farrell could force them into a serious rethink. Farrell has played just four minutes of competitive rugby in a month and the red-rose hierarchy are praying that he makes a significant contribution for Saracens in Friday's European Champions Cup game with Munster in Limerick.

Lancaster sees Farrell as his number one No 10 – with good reason, given the 23-year-old’s overt physicality and big-game temperament – and is considering running him in a revamped midfield combination, with Kyle Eastmond of Bath as an attacking force at inside centre and the Saracens’ defensive supremo Brad Barritt in the outside role. But if Farrell fails to recover from a strained quad muscle, the diminutive George Ford will make his first start in the pivot position. The head coach may then feel obliged to pick a much bigger specimen at  No 12: Luther Burrell of Northampton, or Billy Twelvetrees of Gloucester.

Ford has played some brilliant rugby this season at the heart of a Bath back line that has emerged as the most effective in the land, as well as the most adventurous. But even though the West Countrymen were well represented in the 33-man squad named by Lancaster on Wednesday – the outside centre Jonathan Joseph and the uncapped Fijian-born wing Semesa Rokoduguni were both included, while the versatile Anthony Watson will almost certainly be added to the party on Sunday night – there is no appetite among the selectors to pick club units for the sake of it.

“We’ve never selected on the basis of people playing together at club level,” Lancaster said. “We’ve been developing as a group for the last two and a half years, so I’d be pretty disappointed if we had to fall back on that.”

However, the coach gave a clear indication that if Rokoduguni survives Bath’s high-profile home game with Toulouse this weekend and then trains well at the  England base in Surrey, he will make his Test debut against the New Zealanders. Lancaster spoke a good deal about the importance of balancing pace, power and footballing ability in the back division, and Rokoduguni is unusually blessed when it comes to the first two of those virtues.

The other new caps confirmed in the squad for the four-match international series – the Saracens lock George Kruis and the Northampton flanker Calum Clark – are most unlikely to start against Richie McCaw and company on 8 November. There were plenty of eyebrows raised at the decision to pick Kruis ahead of the Leicester second-rower Graham Kitchener, but Graham Rowntree, the England forwards coach, decided that the younger man had been playing the house down for longer than the older man and was therefore worthy of a call-up.

Clark, meanwhile, goes back a long way with Lancaster, who coached him at Leeds. He is one of life’s hard nuts – occasionally too hard for his own good, if his disciplinary record is anything to go by – but his brand of rugged consistency clearly appeals to the men in charge of red-rose affairs. “When it comes to beating the best, it’s not about the flash stuff,” Lancaster remarked. Clark is nobody’s idea of a Flash Harry.

As for Manu Tuilagi, whose inability to shake off a groin problem has deprived England of a significant attacking threat, the selectors could not quite bring themselves to declare him entirely off-limits. While the human bowling ball was not included in the squad, he was not named among the injury absentees either. Tuilagi’s employers at Leicester think he is out for the duration and the odds are on them being right, but if there is the slightest chance of him playing some part in the autumn programme, Lancaster will clutch it with both hands.

Chris Robshaw, meanwhile, was reconfirmed as captain. The Harlequins back-rower is still taking plenty of stick from those who question his credentials as an open-side flanker of true Test quality, but Lancaster had no doubts. “He’s tough, he’s resilient and he always responds to a challenge,” the coach said. So there.

Comments