England squad selected for autumn internationals: Stuart Lancaster turns to his next men in the middle
Injuries mean Joel Tomkins, Luther Burrell and Henry Trinder come into England squad for autumn ties
There has not quite been a cast of thousands in the England midfield since Will Greenwood and Mike Tindall teamed up in the World Cup-winning side a decade ago, but there have been comfortably enough red-rose centres to populate a Cecil B DeMille crowd scene. Today, three more arrived on set: Joel Tomkins of Saracens, Luther Burrell of Northampton and Henry Trinder of Gloucester. Uncle Tom Cobleigh would surely have joined them, had he been fit.
Stuart Lancaster's decision to throw open the selectorial doors to a fresh intake of candidates is the direct consequence of the injury problems currently incapacitating last season's first-choice pairing of Brad Barritt and Manu Tuilagi, neither of whom will feature in the forthcoming Twickenham meetings with Australia, Argentina and New Zealand.
The newcomers, all uncapped, join Billy Twelvetrees of Gloucester and Kyle Eastmond of Bath in the senior squad. Twelvetrees and Eastmond are scarcely more experienced, having made the grand total of nine Test appearances between them – two-thirds of them off the bench.
"One man's injury is another's opportunity," said the unfailingly optimistic Lancaster in confirming his 34-strong party for next month's business with the southern hemisphere tourists. If truth be told, the head coach would rather it had been otherwise. The home World Cup is less than two years away and, as Lancaster acknowledged, the time is fast approaching when new contenders should be thinking in terms of the 2019 global gathering, not the 2015 version.
Lancaster would give his eye teeth for a settled midfield partnership capable of taking England through the extraordinarily challenging months ahead – months in which his side must play five Tests against the All Blacks, three of them in the Land of the Long White Shroud, where centres as good as Ma'a Nonu and Conrad Smith tend to play like the world-beaters they are. Unfortunately, the word "settled" rarely applies in this particular area of the team. The last time an England coach really knew where he was going with his centres, his name was Clive Woodward.
"The way the game is being played now, you need an attacking threat in your back division," Lancaster said, no doubt thinking back to the last World Cup in 2011, when the England midfield looked about as threatening as a dead halibut. "You need to go into Test matches with the intent to play. That has to be our mindset."
Whether England manage to make good on that assertion next month will be one of the principal fascinations of the series, particularly as they will not have Tuilagi, the human bowling ball, to roll through opposition defences from any and every area of the field. Of the newcomers, Trinder is the edge-of-the-seat talent – the man with the cleverest footwork and the broadest vision. But it is the strong-running, hard-tackling, off-loading Tomkins, a cross-coder from rugby league land, who is the most likely starter against the Wallabies a fortnight on Saturday. Does he have the capacity to break down the barricades at the top level? It is a big question, and one that requires answering sooner rather than later.
"Trinder and Tomkins are different players," said Andy Farrell, the backs coach. "Henry has a big box of tricks and while there were times last season when he wanted to show them all in every game, he's more selective now. Joel is big, difficult for opponents to handle and he knows what he's about. He's still learning but he's finally forgotten that he once played league. His understanding of the union game has grown more instinctive."
Twelvetrees is the hot favourite to perform the inside-centre role and Lancaster will be praying he comes through. The idea of Twelvetrees is enticing indeed: the man from Chichester is big enough to get through the midfield crunch and put his team on the front foot; he has an unusually potent kicking game; his running pass has a Juan Martin Hernandez quality to it; his off-loading skills are highly developed.
What Lancaster needs to see is the vision made flesh. If Twelvetrees is still in place this time next year, England will be closer to a midfield that really works than at any point since that night of nights in Sydney in 2003.
"This series is a great opportunity for Billy," the coach agreed. "I'm really pleased with the way he's stepped up with Gloucester this season, particularly in the leadership sense. It isn't easy for a player to move to outside-half at short notice in a big Heineken Cup match, as he did last weekend, and make a success of it. I think there's a lot more control in his game now."
Should Twelvetrees falter over the autumn series, the coach will have three choices. He could turn to Eastmond, a former rugby league professional like Tomkins, and back him to bring his tap-dancing footwork and sleight of hand to bear on the opposition. Alternatively, he could opt for the bigger, more direct Burrell – a man brought into the squad as an unexpected add-on because Trinder is currently struggling with a hamstring problem.
Finally, Lancaster could ask one of his outside-halves – Owen Farrell or Toby Flood – to move out one position and play as a second five-eighth, as the All Blacks would term it. This is by some distance the most outlandish scenario.
Whatever the upshot, it cannot come soon enough. The clock is ticking ever more rapidly.
Lions hero Corbisiero is doubtful for Wallaby Test after new blow
Alex Corbisiero has a long and worrying history of knee injuries, so the news that he was hobbling once again was precisely what Stuart Lancaster and his fellow England coaches did not want to hear.
The Northampton loose-head prop, a top-of-the-bill act for the Lions in their series triumph over Australia last summer, has not been ruled out of the game against the Wallabies on 2 November, but his chances of making the cut are a long way short of great.
"He's had some fluid drained from the knee and needs to be off his feet for a while," Lancaster said. "We'll do what's right for him. We'll give him plenty of time, but if he's not fit he's not fit. I think we're pretty strong in this position. We have some good options."
Should Corbisiero miss out, Mako Vunipola of Saracens can expect to beat Joe Marler of Harlequins to the starting place in the front row. Vunipola, whose brother Billy is also in Lancaster's squad, started the second Lions Test against the Wallabies in Melbourne, but did not have the happiest time of it at the set-piece – one of the major contributing factors to the Wallaby victory that night.
Corbisiero, on the other hand, had the Australian scrum in all manner of strife the following week. He scored the opening try in a hugely impressive performance, and his absence next month would be a bitter blow.
Corbisiero will go into camp with England in Leeds next week, despite his injury. So will the Exeter flanker Tom Johnson, who is recalled to the elite party after a series of energetic, accomplished displays at club level. Johnson replaces the injured Leicester flanker Tom Croft.
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