England tour of New Zealand: Chances for Geoff Parling and James Haskell as first choices wait in wings
Stuart Lancaster makes surprise selections ahead of the most difficult match of his 30-month tenure
Stuart Lancaster was always likely to find himself in Hobson's Choice territory ahead of this weekend's opening Test with the All Blacks at Eden Park, thanks to the international tour schedulers who did everything in their power to lumber him with the fixture cock-up from hell. Yet the England coach still managed to spring a gentle surprise or two when he revealed the starting line-up for the most difficult match of his 30-month tenure.
Contrary to most expectations, he restored the Leicester lock Geoff Parling – a Lions Test forward this time last year, but something of a peripheral figure since – to the red-rose engine room, condemning the in-form Bath player Dave Attwood to another frustrating stint on the bench. He also plumped for James Haskell, the experienced Wasps back-rower, ahead of Tom Johnson of Exeter at blind-side flanker. Johnson is another who must make do with a spell of "pine-shining", to use the modern jargon.
There are significant tinkerings elsewhere: for instance, the Leicester-bound Freddie Burns will form a fresh 10-12 axis with Kyle Eastmond, as heavily out of favour at Bath as he appears in favour here.
But generally speaking, these changes were widely anticipated. With the Premiership final between Northampton and Saracens unfolding in its brutally intense fashion at Twickenham only five days ago, some very important individuals – the outside-half Owen Farrell, the hooker Dylan Hartley, the lock Courtney Lawes, the flanker Tom Wood and the No 8 Billy Vunipola among them – were rendered off-limits.
The coach had no option but to draw a deep breath and whistle up a number of players whose form at club level has been something less than jaw-droppingly brilliant.
Despite a fast-moving bandwagon in support of a recall for a reformed character by the name of Danny Cipriani in the chief playmaking role, Burns was a clear favourite from the moment George Ford of Bath, the young pretender to Farrell's throne, decided on a visit to the orthopaedic surgeon rather than a trip to New Zealand.
"Freddie was disappointed with the way the club season unfolded for him, but his form at the back end of the season was pretty good and he warrants this opportunity," Lancaster said, adding that Cipriani had made "good progress" and would be trusted to make a contribution off the bench if required to do so.
The ankle injury suffered by first-choice inside centre Billy Twelvetrees, who played alongside Burns in the Gloucester midfield last season, continues to complicate matters for the hierarchy, hence Eastmond's promotion – a welcome development for the former rugby league professional after several weeks of marginalisation at Bath.
"Billy should be fit to train on Saturday, when the players involved in the Premiership final are due back on the practice field," Lancaster said. "Kyle? We think he offers us something. He was exceptional for us in Argentina last summer and every time he trains with us we see his potential. We have a nice balance in midfield for this game because he's the kind of footballing No 12 I prefer to see in the position – someone who poses a running threat as well as a passing threat.
"We'll be tested defensively in the 10-12 channel, that's for sure, but I've seen nothing in training to suggest that Freddie and Kyle won't be ready to face whatever the All Blacks bring. Andy Farrell [the backs coach with primary responsibility for defensive organisation] is very diligent in this area and he really puts the players through it. Everyone has stepped up this week. The response has been excellent."
Lancaster's decisions in the back five of the pack have a certain logic to them, although this will come as little consolation to Attwood and Johnson. Parling, who was on the brink of losing his starting place to Lawes when he broke down with injury before last year's autumn internationals, is the cleverest line-out forward in the English game now that Steve Borthwick, the one-time national captain, has called it a day and embarked on a coaching career.
Haskell is in prime shape – and, just as pertinently, has a good track record in this country. He was one of the few successes on the scandal-blighted tour here in 2008 and was probably the pick of the red-rose back-rowers at the World Cup three years later.
"It's tough on Tom Johnson, who has waited patiently for an opportunity," said the coach, who rarely messes with his pecking order without a very good reason, "but James is a powerful man and a physical defender, currently enjoying a good run of form. He's also a 50-cap player and we don't have many of those.
"As far as the second row is concerned, we expect the line-out to be a fundamental part of the game: the All Blacks have a good attacking system based on quality possession from that area. Geoff understands what's needed there and with Rob Webber [the Bath hooker] fit to play, we have an accurate thrower. And as he also brings a good deal of size with him, we think we'll scrummage strongly too."
While it goes without saying that England would far rather go into this game with the likes of Farrell, Lawes and Wood safely on the team sheet, they are not much interested in peddling excuses. "It makes the Test match more challenging when you look at the quality of the players who will be sitting in the stand," Lancaster acknowledged, "but this is an opportunity for us all the same. I'm not saying it's a situation I'd have chosen to be in, but it gives us the chance to work with a wider group of players and see who can, and can't, deliver in a pressure game against opponents as good as the world champions."
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