Barritt and Tuilagi in battle of the hard centres
Lancaster has tough choices to make in England's midfield – and the engine room
Feverish talk about a possible change to England's midfield configuration for this weekend's highly-charged Six Nations meeting with Wales at Twickenham was enough to drive Brad Barritt, the Test newcomer from Saracens, into battle-cry mode yesterday. "The Welsh backs are big but they're still people with two legs, and as they can't run without their legs it's up to us to cut them down," pronounced the centre, referring to Jamie Roberts, Jonathan Davies and the rest of the red-shirted brick outhouses.
He might also have been talking of Manu Tuilagi, the Leicester centre who completed his return from injury by producing a match-winning performance at Saracens on Sunday – watched, funnily enough, by Barritt himself, who happens to be the man in possession of the shirt to which Tuilagi laid claim during last autumn's World Cup in New Zealand. The two of them will square up in training in Surrey today and if the South African-born contender succeeds in doing to his Samoan-born rival the things he would like to do to Roberts and company, he may yet hang on to his place in the starting line-up.
Which is almost certainly more than can be said for the Paris-based lock Tom Palmer, whose place is under serious threat following scratchy line-out performances against Scotland and Italy. Stuart Lancaster, the caretaker coach who may be one big win away from dropping the "caretaker" part of the job description, is looking hard at his engine-room options and could well make a switch. Geoff Parling, inexperienced but highly impressive in training, was not made available to Leicester for last weekend's Premiership game at Vicarage Road, despite a lack of recent rugby – a sure sign of something afoot. With Courtney Lawes also in the shake-up after recent hassles of the orthopaedic kind, Palmer might not only fail to make the run-on team, but miss out on the bench as well.
Lancaster was not in revelatory mood when he appeared in public session yesterday, bracketing Barritt and Tuilagi together when discussing the midfield thinking. "We're in a great position now, with training as competitive as it is and with additional candidates coming into the equation," he said, without giving the merest hint of who might start.
He acknowledged that Tuilagi was "definitely a contender" for the match-day squad, but that was about it. "I'm just pleased Manu got another 80 minutes under his belt on Sunday," he said, in conclusion. "He looked sharper than he did the previous week, but it's still the case that he's played only four games since the World Cup. He had a hamstring injury, and the thing with hamstring injuries is you can't do any sprint work while you're recovering."
The coach's predecessor, Martin Johnson, would certainly have considered playing Barritt and Tuilagi together, given his deep-seated preference for the physical over the creative – the prosaic over the poetic. If Lancaster decides this is the best way to neutralise the front-foot threat posed by Roberts and Davies, not to mention Mike Phillips and George North among others with a measurable advantage in the avoirdupois department, he will have an awkward call to make at fly-half.
Could he possibly drop Owen Farrell and lumber Charlie Hodgson with the goal-kicking duties? Could he do away with Hodgson, the man responsible for all two of England's tries to date, and move Farrell to 10, thereby strengthening the England defence? Could he dump them both and recall Toby Flood, another player who has put recent injury problems behind him? All three options come with logic attached. Unfortunately for Lancaster, all three are fraught with danger, too.
Asked whether he was equal to the challenge of making such big decisions in selection so early in his career as an international coach, Lancaster grinned.
"We'll see after the weekend," he said. "The people coming back have certainly given us plenty to think about and it's my job to achieve a balance while trying to develop combinations that will work for us in the future. Some of that is a short-term process, some of it is done over the longer term. The question in selection is how and when you choose to bring combinations together. Is it at the start of a game, or is it off the bench? I think the bench will be a significant factor this weekend, just as it was in the victory over Italy."
In Rome, the coach's substitutions worked well – particularly at scrum-half, where the energetic Lee Dickson replaced a sluggish Ben Youngs, and at No 8, where Ben Morgan's open-field dynamism in the last half-hour overshadowed Phil Dowson's close-quarter effectiveness in the opening stages. Both Dickson and Morgan are widely expected to start this weekend, although the running threat posed by Phillips, the reigning Lions scrum-half, is giving Lancaster food for thought.
Whatever the whys and wherefores, he has no reason to doubt Barritt's readiness for the challenge.
"We're more than happy to match Wales in a physical contest," the centre said. "When I was growing up in Durban, there were some pretty big Afrikaans guys around. I remember playing against 10-year-olds weighing 100kgs. When I look at the England squad now, I see a lot of competition for places amongst people who are all competitive beasts – a couple in each position who can do a good job. There will be some disappointed people when the team is named, but that's the nature of it when you're playing for the highest honours. The important thing is that we're all on the same page. It's vital we handle the week properly."
Lee Mears, the Bath hooker, is out of the running, having suffered another problem with his troublesome biceps at the weekend. Chris Brooker of Harlequins has been called in as cover. Among the backs, the wing Charlie Sharples has been sent back to Gloucester for treatment on a minor leg injury.
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