England 47 Italy 17: Jonathan Joseph gives Stuart Lancaster exciting World Cup options

Bath centre’s two-try performance makes the case for a different approach to England attack

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The forthcoming World Cup has been in the diary for quite some time now – Gordon Brown was still enjoying beer and football nights in the prime ministerial flat when England fought off rival bids from South Africa and Italy to secure the hosting rights to this year’s tournament – but events have a wicked habit of interfering with the best-laid plans at a very late stage in the cycle.

England bagged themselves half a dozen tries in their latest Six Nations outing, two of them scored by the molten-hot Jonathan Joseph, but far from clarifying selection matters ahead of the big event, the manner of the win merely muddied the waters.

If Joseph’s performance at outside centre on opening night in Cardiff demonstrated that a stiletto at No 13 could be every bit as effective as a lump hammer – that the shortest route from A to B, as favoured by Manu Tuilagi and Luther Burrell, is not necessarily the most productive one – his enforced move to the right wing in the early stages of Saturday’s 47-17 victory opened up a whole new vista of possibility.

Meanwhile, the full-time wing Jonny May, who might have been expected to prosper in such circumstances, made rather a mess of things, to the extent that only a soothsayer or a fool would put money on the shape of the England back line come September.

Stuart Lancaster being neither of those things, there was little prospect of him predicting the future on Saturday night. The head coach gave the injured Tuilagi his customary mention in absentia, but as the human bowling ball is not even running, let alone rolling, it was difficult to gauge the seriousness of the suggestion that he could “do a job at inside centre”. It was even harder to imagine the Leicester man playing the No 12 role in the highly effective, multifaceted way Billy Twelvetrees performed it against the Azzurri.

 

By propelling himself back into the World Cup mix with his accurate distribution and overt physicality – those critics who called on him to “man up” in defence while reducing his error count in possession saw progress in both areas – Twelvetrees made it more difficult for Lancaster to restore either Brad Barritt or Kyle Eastmond to active red-rose duty over the three remaining rounds of the competition. While Tuilagi’s fitness issues cannot be described as a blessing, even of the disguised variety, they make life a little simpler for the hierarchy.

Other questions arose as the game unfolded before another Twickenham full house of 82,000-plus.

Lancaster sees the increasingly impressive Anthony Watson “very much as a wing”, but as the Bath back also looked uncannily like a Test full-back on switching position midway through the opening quarter – witness his try-saving tackle on the bright Azzurri spark Tommaso Allan late in the piece – there is fresh food for thought at No 15.

There was also an eye-catching cameo from Danny Cipriani, who started and finished a try-scoring move the moment he took the field just past the hour mark. Most England outside-halves of recent vintage would have found such a stunt beyond them.

And then there were developments up front, the most significant concerning dear old Nick Easter. It is not every day that an international coach looks to an old-school 36-year-old to “add some energy and change the dynamic”, as Lancaster put it, so when the Harlequins No 8 replaced a flagging Dave Attwood at lock as early as the 50th minute and completed the English scoring with an arm-wrestling try, thereby becoming the oldest player to cross the whitewash in a Six Nations fixture, it was just about possible to give him credence as a World Cup contender.

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Jonathan Joseph scores his second try against Italy

Easter’s candidacy depends on the recuperative powers of Ben Morgan, the Gloucester No 8, who suffered a nasty injury while on club duty last month and may or may not heal in time for the World Cup training camp. Either way, the venerable Quin will continue doing what he does.

After making his Test return in Cardiff and conceding a penalty that wiped Attwood’s try from the scoreboard, Easter spent the following day at Wimbledon RFC, where he coaches. “I got there just in time for the warm-up and loved every minute,” he said. “There’s a clubhouse and a super-muddy pitch, nobody gets paid – it reminds you what rugby is all about.” And quite rightly, his charges fined him for his indiscretion at the Millennium Stadium.

But for the fact that they now face a demanding trip to Ireland, the only other unbeaten side in the tournament, England might be feeling just a little smug. Yet Lancaster was not wildly enthusiastic about a second successive dud start: Luca Morisi and Sergio Parisse ripped up the home defence in opening the scoring in the fourth minute, and but for Mike Brown’s self-sacrificing tackle on Andrea Masi, the visitors would have doubled their lead a short while later. The coach also lamented the fact that Morisi’s second-half tries were the products of English generosity.

“We were soft around the edges,” Lancaster said, uncomfortable in the knowledge that if his players travel to Dublin with a soft spot of any description, the Irish will find it. “We’re a little slow out of the blocks at the moment, and that’s about mentality.”

Watson put it even more bluntly. “We have to be massively critical of ourselves,” the 20-year-old said. “To concede three tries in the way we did was not good. We made it too easy for the Italians.”

But England are ahead of the game. Easter was captain the last time they lost on the far side of the Irish Sea, on Grand Slam day in 2011, and the memory burns.

“We’d had a six-day turnaround, having played the previous Sunday, but that had nothing to do with the defeat,” he said. “We just forgot what it takes to win in tough places like that.” He and his countrymen now have the best part of a fortnight to work on their powers of recall.

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