It is almost 30 years since England threw an uncapped midfielder into the fires of a Test in South Africa without the rugby equivalent of an asbestos suit and found themselves being burned alive collectively as a consequence. That centre was John Palmer, a wonderfully creative playmaker from Bath who might have caused the Springboks some problems had he not found himself playing out of position against Danie Gerber, one of the great centres of the post-war era. Gerber scored one try in the opening match and three more in the second.
The memory came surging back yesterday as Stuart Lancaster, midway through his first tour as England's head coach, confirmed what everyone had suspected for at least 24 hours: that an untried midfield combination, with Manu Tuilagi in the unfamiliar role of inside centre and the freshly-minted Jonathan Joseph in the outside channel, will take the field tomorrow at Ellis Park – the stadium in Johannesburg in which Gerber ran riot to the tune of a hat-trick in 1984. What was that old saying about those who forget their history?
Lancaster has certainly been bold. Tuilagi, the human bowling ball, will not be lacking in physicality – "He'll give us solidity; we have to recognise the threat South Africa pose in midfield," said the coach – while Joseph has been the talk of the coaching community for a long while. Indeed, the red-rose backs coach, Mike Catt, who nurtured the 21-year-old at London Irish, has described him as the "new Jeremy Guscott". And he should know, having played alongside the series-winning Lion for the best part of a decade.
But this arrangement will place enormous pressure on the tactical acumen of Toby Flood, recalled at outside-half for the unfortunate Owen Farrell. While the Springboks have three big-kicking backs boasting the full range of game-shaping skills – Morne Steyn, Frans Steyn and the full-back Patrick Lambie are all No 10s to a greater or lesser degree and will all boot the ball miles in the thin air of the veld – Tuilagi has no kicking game that anyone is aware of and is not a noted distributor either. As for Joseph, this is one heck of a place to make a first start in Test rugby. Flood knows he will have to manage his closest collaborators, and manage them well.
Flood weighed the prospects in his usual entertaining style.
"Me? Ignite the backline? You don't know me," he said with a laugh. "Seriously, we'll give it a crack. When we moved the ball late in the game last weekend we looked dangerous. I know Manu is slightly out of position but you need to go toe to toe with the Boks, to be both aggressive and pragmatic, and I think we can get him into the game a little more by playing him at 12."
Farrell soaked up a good deal of criticism after the Durban defeat, not all of it remotely justified, but the England selectors feel he is weary, physically and mentally, after a long run in the thick of it.
"He's only 20. This time a year ago he was playing a Junior World Cup final," Lancaster said. "He was disappointed when we gave him the news, but he's responded in exactly the way I would want someone to react. In fact, he's set an example."
Would England not miss the ferocity of his warrior spirit?
"Owen does have that spirit," the coach agreed, "but we have competitive individuals in all positions. I think Toby would be disappointed if anyone regarded him as anything other than a warrior."Reuse content