England vs Australia final test: Stuart Lancaster set to drop Owen Farrell for Twickenham game

Twelvetrees’ impressive cameo against Samoa may earn him the No 12 spot

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The Independent Online

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.

 

“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.”

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