What is it about centres these days? They are going down like ninepins, the poor petals. Brad Barritt and Manu Tuilagi, the first-choice England pairing last season, will play no part in the forthcoming autumn internationals – Barritt is limping around in an orthopaedic boot; Tuilagi has a torn muscle in his chest – and it now transpires that another midfielder with international experience, Anthony Allen of Leicester, is suffering from a leg injury that will incapacitate him for the rest of the year.
Allen, one of the smaller centres in the second-string Saxons squad selected by the national coach, Stuart Lancaster, back in the summer, would have struggled to nail a promotion, despite his stratospheric level of reliability in Premiership rugby. For one thing, Lancaster needs an outside back rather than an inside specialist; for another, size matters to this red-rose boss, although he is nowhere near as obsessed by the tale of the tape as his predecessor Martin Johnson.
Two uncapped midfielders of the tough-nut variety, Joel Tomkins of Saracens – brother of the New Zealand-bound rugby league maestro Sam – and Luther Burrell of Northampton are the front-runners for a call-up when Lancaster confirms a 33-man squad for next month's meetings with Australia, Argentina and a scary-looking bunch of All Blacks. The more nuanced Jonathan Joseph of Bath, who rather looked the part in South Africa 16 months ago, would count himself among the contenders, but having been dropped from the elite group before the start of the season, he may not have made sufficient progress to force the coach into a reappraisal.
All things considered, Tomkins is best positioned to take the field against the Wallabies a fortnight on Saturday, probably in a unit featuring his clubmate Owen Farrell and the Gloucester centre Billy Twelvetrees, whose Heineken Cup performance against Perpignan four days ago – as a stand-in at No 10 for the stricken Freddie Burns – was widely admired.
Lancaster has one other hole to fill, thanks to the long-term injury suffered by the Lions flanker Tom Croft in the opening game of the domestic campaign. There is God's amount of back-row talent in the Saxons, some climbing up the mountain face – Will Fraser of Saracens, Luke Wallace of Harlequins, Calum Clark of Northampton – and some, like Thomas Waldrom of Leicester and James Haskell of Wasps, reluctantly beginning their descent. Unless he engages in a little selectorial jiggery-pokery, Lancaster can summon only one.
On current form, Tom Johnson of Exeter – a flanker who somehow seems to be going up and down at the same time – is worthy of a call, but it may be that Lancaster considers him just a little lightweight for business at the very top level. This much is certain: if the two hottest performers at No 8 were easily pickable, either Sam Dickinson of Northampton or another Exeter man, Dave Ewers, would be at the head of the queue. Unfortunately for them, the Elite Player Squad format agreed between Twickenham and the Premiership clubs is not favourable to bolts from the blue.Reuse content