Billy Twelvetrees running out of time for first All-Blacks test in Auckland

 

Billy Twelvetrees, the key figure in England’s attacking strategy, is still struggling for fitness five days before the start of the three-Test series against the All Blacks and is now extremely doubtful to play in Auckland this  weekend, though coach  Stuart Lancaster has yet to rule him out.

“The clock is ticking,” Lancaster said on Sunday, confirming that the Gloucester centre had not yet played a full part in training and shows no immediate sign of doing so.

This was bad news for the tourists, already shorn of two international midfielders in Luther Burrell and Brad Barritt, both of whom participated in the exhausting Premiership final at Twickenham on Saturday and were on the field for the entire 100 minutes. Along with a significant number of fellow Northampton and Saracens players, they were scheduled to fly to New Zealand this evening. However, they will be in no condition to perform at Eden Park and must wait until the second Test in Dunedin on 14 June to resume their England careers, if selected.

Twelvetrees, pretty much the only Test-class inside centre armed with the full range of passing and kicking skills, suffered an ankle injury during the Gloucester-London Irish league game early last month and was widely assumed to be off-limits to Lancaster as he pieced together his squad for a tough tour made doubly difficult by the proximity of the Premiership showpiece to the Eden Park match. His progress was quicker than initially anticipated, but unless things change dramatically, he will run out of time.

The injury bulletin from the Saints-Saracens game came as some relief to the coaching staff. The outside-half Owen Farrell and No 8 Billy Vunipola failed to go the distance, but are thought to be in one piece. So too is hooker Dylan Hartley, who played the best part of 40 minutes at Twickenham and will be in contention for a start in Dunedin. As things stand, the Bath hooker Rob Webber is favourite to face the All Blacks in Auckland.

Steve Hansen, the New Zealand coach, has named a 31-strong party for the series, including all the big names except for the stellar outside-half Daniel Carter, who is on sabbatical.

The much talked-about centre Malakai Fekitoa and lock Patrick Tuipulotu are the new faces in a squad which also features the World Cup-winning flanker Jerome Kaino, back from a stint in Japan.

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