New Zealand v England: Stuart Lancaster has Manu Tuilagi at centre of the action
Burrell is named on the bench while Twelvetrees misses out altogether as Eastmond partners Manu Tuilagi once more in the centre
Stuart Lancaster has been plotting his way towards next year’s home World Cup since the summer of 2012, but the great conundrum of English rugby – otherwise known as the red rose midfield – remains unsolved. The national coach has dropped both of his Six Nations centres, Billy Twelvetrees and Luther Burrell, for this weekend’s last hurrah against the All Blacks in Hamilton and if the fresh combination of Kyle Eastmond and Manu Tuilagi click together as readily as they did in Auckland a dozen days ago, it will inevitably lead to a major reassessment of the available options.
Twelvetrees, the one truly creative spirit in the back division since the demotion of the Saracens full-back Alex Goode, made several mistakes too many during last week’s one-point defeat in the Dunedin Test and has paid a heavy price. He should not be too hard on himself – Lancaster went out of his way yesterday to stress that England had asked an awful lot of a man playing for the first time in six injury-hampered weeks – but this is an alarming development for the Gloucester player all the same.
Burrell, meanwhile, will take little comfort from being named among the replacements. The Northampton centre missed the Auckland Test after arriving late on tour – along with more than a dozen others, he had Premiership final business to address before flying out – and while he returned to the starting line-up in Dunedin, he could not reproduce his excellent Six Nations form against the high-calibre New Zealand pairing of Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith. As a consequence, he finds himself back where he started last September: that is to say, behind Tuilagi in the pecking order.
“I don’t think it’s right to suggest that what’s happened here has muddied the pool,” Lancaster said. “The truth is that we’re still finding out who can deliver at the highest level. We’ve had a good chance to look at Twelvetrees over the course of the season, while Eastmond has had the one opportunity in Auckland. He took that opportunity, so we think now is the right time to give him a second go.
“Billy wasn’t that far off in Dunedin – it was a big step for him to play that game, having not had a match since early May – but when I looked back at the two matches, I thought Kyle edged it. Do I regret picking Billy for the second Test? No, although it was certainly a tough ask for him. The thing is, we’re going to need four centres for the World Cup campaign and we need to find out about people. Kyle offers something similar in terms of his footballing ability, which means we can still play with width, and his kicking game is improving. It’s a form thing, really.”
Lancaster’s other changes were nowhere near as agonising. Freddie Burns, the outside-half who rose above a domestic season full of trouble and strife to deliver a fine performance in Auckland, returns to the No 10 berth for the injured Owen Farrell, while Ben Youngs resumes at scrum-half for Danny Care, who is also unfit. Chris Ashton is back on the wing as a result of Tuilagi’s move inside while up front, there are switches at hooker, lock and No 8, with Dylan Hartley, Courtney Lawes and Billy Vunipola beating Rob Webber, Joe Launchbury and Ben Morgan to the starting berths.
The three demoted forwards all have places on the bench and are likely to feature in the final quarter – even Launchbury, who is just about out on his feet after a savagely tiring campaign. There is also likely to be a role for Danny Cipriani, who edged past the Northampton stand-off Stephen Myler with an eye-catching display for the midweek team in their victory over the Crusaders here on Tuesday.
Casting his eye over the No 10 issues, Lancaster seemed less alarmed by Farrell’s unavailability than might have been the case three months ago. “Freddie played well in Auckland, so the challenge for him here is to back it up with a comparable performance,” said the coach. “The call on the bench was a tough one, if I’m honest. I was really pleased with the 45 minutes Danny played against the Crusaders, but it was a difficult conversation with Stephen because in a different scenario, he’d have flown here with the first group and started the first Test. He’s one of the victims of the fixture clash, without a doubt.”
Ironically enough, Myler is the ultra-steady kind of outside-half who might have taken most of the right decisions at most of the key junctures in Dunedin. “We kicked too loosely to the All Blacks and gave them too much easy ball in the back field,” Lancaster said, highlighting the deficiencies in game management that cost the tourists a famous victory. “That and off-loading in the wrong areas of the field were the key differentials. It’s about understanding shifts in momentum during a match. To use football terminology, there are times when you need to put your foot on the ball.
“Getting players to recognise that in the heat of battle when one or two things have just gone against them…that’s the key. It comes down to experience in the end. You can talk about it and role-play before a game, but until you’ve gone through it and learnt from it…When you’re playing against people like Nonu and Smith and Richie McCaw, who have been through it so often, you have to learn fast.”
England team v New Zealand:
Brown; Chris Ashton, Manu Tuilagi, Kyle Eastmond, Marland Yarde; Freddie Burns, Ben Youngs; Joe Marler, Dylan Hartley, David Wilson; Courtney Lawes, Geoff Parling; Tom Wood, Chris Robshaw, Billy Vunipola.
Replacements: Rob Webber, Matt Mullan, Kieran Brookes, Joe Launchbury, Ben Morgan, Lee Dickson, Danny Cipriani, Luther Burrell
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