Two things were immediately clear as England began preparations for this weekend’s curtain-down autumn international with Australia at Twickenham – a fascinating preview of the pivotal World Cup pool game between the great sporting rivals in 10 months’ time.
Certainty number one was that George Ford would stay at outside-half after his bright-eyed performance against Samoa. Certainty number two was that the rest of the midfield remained... shrouded in uncertainty.
The two centres who combined so effectively throughout this year’s Six Nations tournament, Billy Twelvetrees of Gloucester and Luther Burrell of Northampton, were both in the forefront of Stuart Lancaster’s mind as the head coach weighed up his options for a meeting with the Wallabies that could have significant ramifications for both sides. As a consequence, neither Owen Farrell nor Brad Barritt, the 12-13 axis last weekend, were resting easy.
Burrell, ruled out of the early Tests in this series by a hand injury, performed strongly for his club in their excellent Premiership victory at Saracens on Sunday, but he strained a leg muscle during that contest and may not be in a position to train fully until Thursday. All things considered, he will do well to force his way past Barritt, the team’s defensive kingpin, in the time available.
Twelvetrees is in a different place entirely, having impressed off the bench against the Samoans. Harshly treated at the start of this campaign – Kyle Eastmond of Bath was picked ahead of him – he made the most of his opportunity on Saturday, contributing a try-saving cover tackle on the South Seas wing Alapati Leiua and impressing Lancaster with some constructive work on the ball.
England 28 Samoa 9 player ratings
England 28 Samoa 9 player ratings
1/16 Mike Brown - 6
Enjoyed scoring his try, unusually a couple of high balls went astray and knocked on during a promising first-half attack. Did not reach the high standard achieved a week earlier against the Springboks.
2/16 Anthony Watson - 6
Far more involved than a week earlier and contributed significantly to Brown's try. A potent threat that England need to use more but still learning the game at elite level
3/16 Brad Barritt - 5
A midfield rock who must still be uncertain what is going on around him. Makes his tackles, attacking ploys limited - grub kicks did not come off - but needs a consistent partner
4/16 Owen farrell - 5
Threw himself into breakdowns with usual gusto but still limited coherence in the midfield attack. Important role in first England try but another game - against better opposition - needed to validate his place
5/16 Jonny May - 7
After nine-minute rest for a blood injury, returned to run straight and true for his first-half try. Second try a walk-in but showed there's no substitute for raw pace and consolidated place
6/16 George Ford - 7
Did well on first start, steadied the first-half ship, kicked goals when it mattered and showed himself an attacking threat with front-foot ball. Made his tackles too for a good evening's work
7/16 Ben Youngs - 5
Undemonstrative return to the starting jersey, oiling the works for others. Greater accuracy with his kicking needed, England are still not testing opponents under the high ball enough
8/16 Joe Marler - 6
Part of a sound scrum which squeezed out two early penalties. Samoa never found a way round this set-piece boulder and Marler showed his customary zeal in loose play, as ball-handler and tackler
9/16 Rob Webber - 6
Another hard-working game, good set-piece work and justified his selection ahead of Dylan Hartley. Did not get his hands on the ball as much as he does at Bath but deserves another opportunity
10/16 David Wilson - 7
Did all of the above and also showed flare as a defender by covering back and stifling a Samoa attack down the left flank. He and Marler left early to give game time to replacements
11/16 Dave Attwood - 6
Another perfect lineout display by England, in which Attwood played full part. Greater first-half fluidity would have given him more chances in loose play and missed a try at the end by knocking on
12/16 Courtney Lawes - 6
Equal contribution to Attwood at lineout time and ran the ball effectively. Can be pleased with his showing after taking that heavy knock against New Zealand first time out
13/16 James Haskell - 6
Typically industrious showing from a player bursting to find a regular starting place. Over-eagerness accounted for concession of penalties but covered the ground well and aggressive in the tackle
14/16 Chris Robshaw - 7
Named man of the match for doing everything he does every week. Important lineout presence and good hands in May's second try, bustled around the field to great effect and made over 20 tackles
15/16 Ben Morgan
Would have liked to make a greater impact. England need more potent running from their big men and though Morgan lifted his game after the break, he became a bit lost as the game broke up
England used all their bench, of whom George Kruis made the greatest impact. The Saracens lock stole one lineout, popped up in midfield more than once and has made a distinct impression. Marland Yarde made one flaring run as May's first-half replacement and returned eager for more but the game had broken up by the time the rest of the bench appeared.
“Billy is a genuine prospect for us at 12,” said the coach. “He’s worked hard in the areas we identified for him at the start of this autumn series and when he had his chance at the weekend, he brought some energy to the team. We think George has earned the right to start again – he played well enough for that – so No 12 is where the choice is to be made.”
Farrell will take it hard if he finds himself among the replacements after a single outing in the inside centre role, but the Saracens midfielder does not see himself as a No 12 – he made that abundantly clear in public during the build-up to the Samoa match – and there were times against the Samoans when you could see his point. Defensively, he is a valuable asset in any position. As a running threat in an important attacking channel, he barely registers.
Talking of heavy falls, Lancaster sent three of his 34-strong squad back home last night: two Bath backs, Eastmond and the wing Semesa Rokoduguni, were released, as was the Harlequins scrum-half Danny Care, all of whom are therefore available for Friday night’s big Premiership contest between the teams at the Recreation Ground. Each of them will feel hard done by. A little over a fortnight ago, they were squaring up to the All Blacks as first-choice England players.
Eastmond’s non-existent kicking game has cost him – it is now obvious that Lancaster requires an inside centre who can play territory by applying boot to ball – while Rokoduguni has fallen victim to the rapid progress made by his clubmate, Anthony Watson. The 20-year-old newcomer showed enough on Saturday to suggest that a place in the 2015 World Cup squad is his for the taking. Not to mention the 2019 tournament in Japan and the 2023 competion in God knows where. “Physically, he has all the components to be a top-class wing – and, indeed, a top-class full-back,” the coach said. “He’s big, strong, fast, athletic, and very good in the air. The main question for me centred around his self-belief, his confidence. There was a tipping point during this series and it came during one of our conversations, when Anthony realised that he hadn’t put his mark on the camp. Rokoduguni had been picked ahead of him and it rattled him a bit. He understood that he needed to let his personality come out, and since then, it has.”
Lancaster knows that control will be all-important against a Wallaby side boasting “X-factor players across the board”, as he put it. The coach is cautiously optimistic that the lock Courtney Lawes will recover from a knee problem, and there is a strong chance that two more Northampton forwards, the hooker Dylan Hartley and the flanker Tom Wood, will step back up after a brief spell of replacement duty.
“Tom is under consideration, especially as a line-out option,” the coach confirmed. “He doesn’t like to miss a minute of training time, let alone a minute’s international rugby, so a fired-up Wood is a pretty useful person to have in your armoury.”