New Zealand v England: Manu Tuilagi starts on the wing as Stuart Lancaster names all-new centre combination with fit-again Billy Twelvetrees and Luther Burrell returning
Owen Farrell returns at fly-half but Lancaster names Billy Vunipola on the bench as he keeps faith in Number Eight Ben Morgan
The human bowling ball will be rolling down an unfamiliar alley when England go in search of a series-levelling victory over New Zealand in the wintry South island outpost of Dunedin this weekend. Stuart Lancaster and his fellow coaches have spent the last year wrestling with the idea of shifting Manu Tuilagi from centre to wing and with good reason – many moons ago, an All Black by the name of Jonah Lomu proved that when it comes to wide play, size can matter a hell of a lot – but there are those who will wonder whether this is absolutely the right moment for so radical an experiment.
It is certainly a bold move against opponents as dangerous as the reigning world champions and when he confirmed it on Wednesday, the head coach was wearing one of his “well, we don’t die wondering” expressions. Tuilagi, all 18st of him, has spent relatively little of his senior career on the wing, although he played the vast majority of his age-grade rugby in the position, and while there is no earthly reason to doubt the Leicester player’s suitability for the role in the attacking sense, his mastery of the defensive arts is another matter entirely.
England defend in a way that places a very high premium on what might be called anticipatory positioning in exposed areas of the field. If he is to make a success of this new role, the Samoan-born back from Fatausi-Fogapoa will have to draw on all his rugby instincts in spotting and assessing the nature of the All Black threat – especially the threat with the boot. The New Zealanders will test him under the high ball and challenge him on the turn, reminding him at every opportunity that there is more to the union game than running over people in route-one stampedes.
Lancaster has become attached to the midfield partnership forged by Billy Twelvetrees of Gloucester and Luther Burrell of Northampton during the Six Nations and with both of those players returning to for this game – Twelvetrees after injury; Burrell after the one-match break forced on him by his participation in the Premiership final at Twickenham 12 days ago – the coach feels this is the time to press the “shock and awe” button by playing all three of his principal centre contenders in the same back line.
“We looked carefully at the unit sessions in training because we wanted to be sure Manu understood, and was comfortable with, the positional aspect of wing play,” Lancaster said. “We have some real options in our back division now – we have pace and power, we have ball-carrying strength and footballing skill – and we think we have the right balance for this game, especially as our physicality in midfield won’t be diminished by having Billy and Luther together again. Manu can have a big impact, particularly in the strike plays, and if, as we expect, New Zealand kick to him a fair amount, he’ll have counter-attacking opportunities. But our game plan won’t revolve around getting the ball to one man.”
One of Lancaster’s issues with the England wings in the narrow defeat at Eden Park last weekend was their failure to contest the ball in the air and while Tuilagi is unlikely to be mistaken for a leaping salmon, his chasing game will be more of a threat to All Black life and limb than anything posed by the much smaller Jonny May of Gloucester. May has had a hard fall, clean out of the squad. The outside back cover on the bench will be provided by the recalled Chris Ashton of Saracens.
Most of the other major selection decisions went as expected: Owen Farrell for the rejuvenated Freddie Burns at outside-half; Danny Care for Ben Youngs at scrum-half; Tom Wood for James Haskell at blind-side flanker; big votes of confidence in Rob Webber at hooker and Ben Morgan at No 8. The surprise came in the engine room, where the Northampton lock Courtney Lawes failed to dislodge Geoff Parling of Leicester – a poor reward, Lawes might feel, for a long series of spectacular performances at all levels of competition.
Yet Parling’s contribution at Eden Park in steering a profoundly inexperienced England side so close to the promised land of victory over the world’s best team was quite something, not just in the line-out, where he secured a perfect 100 per cent return while disrupting the All Blacks on their own throw, but in the composure he showed at difficult moments. “The pressure we put on the New Zealand line-out was down to Geoff,” said Lancaster, deeply impressed by the Lions Test forward’s return to international rugby after a season of injury hassle. “His analysis, his game organisation and his ball-winning ability makes us think that this is the best approach in the second row.”
Of the England regulars who missed out on Eden Park because of the Premiership final and now find themselves kicking their heels on replacement duty, it seems the Saracens No 8 Billy Vunipola was the most put out. “If we’re talking about disappointed players, Billy would be in that category,” Lancaster acknowledged, diplomatically. “But he was a huge handful for the All Blacks before Christmas and part of the equation this time is having him coming on with fresh legs after 50 minutes and bringing new impetus. He’s a good person to have on the bench when he’s annoyed and angry – in a positive way, of course.
“By making these changes, we think we’re adding to our chances of keeping the series alive. If you were in a World Cup situation, you wouldn’t play seven matches straight through with the same team. You might change from quarter-final to semi-final, and from semi to final. Everyone does that and the subtleties involved in those decisions are what differentiate the successful team from the others. Do we have it right for this weekend? It’s on my head as coach, isn’t it?”
England squad to face New Zealand: M Brown (Harlequins); M Tuilagi (Leicester), L Burrell (Northampton), B Twelvetrees (Gloucester), M Yarde (Harlequins); O Farrell (Saracens), D Care (Harlequins); J Marler (Harlequins), R Webber (Bath), D Wilson (Bath), J Launchbury (Wasps), G Parling (Leicester), T Wood (Northampton), C Robshaw (Harlequins, capt), B Morgan (Gloucester).
Replacements: D Hartley (Northampton), M Mullan (Wasps), K Brookes (Newcastle), C Lawes (Northampton), B Vunipola (Saracens), B Youngs (Leicester), F Burns (Leicester), C Ashton (Saracens).
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