England are not exactly tripping the light fantastic on the try-scoring front these days; after putting four past Scotland at the start of the Six Nations in February, they managed only one more all tournament, and that was a fluke. Even so, it seems odd to suggest that a new back division shorn of Chris Ashton and Manu Tuilagi, the most dangerous red-rose strike runners of their generation, looks a lot more exciting than the old one.
Freddie Burns, Billy Twelvetrees, Jonathan Joseph, Christian Wade, Marland Yarde... if this quintet combine in perfect harmony and give a hard-bitten Barbarians side the runaround at Twickenham tomorrow, the England coach, Stuart Lancaster, will be forgiven for wondering if he should rip things up and start again. At the very least, he is likely to find himself looking at his next elite squad selection in a fresh light.
Lancaster said yesterday that come July, when the hard calls must be made, there will be three distinct groups waiting to be mixed and matched. The first, most familiar batch of contenders will have been on the British and Irish Lions tour of Australia: men like Tuilagi, Owen Farrell, Dan Cole and the Youngs brothers. The second, including Ashton and the national captain, Chris Robshaw, should be well rested and raring to go, having been given the summer off.
And the third group? That’s this lot, and very ambitious they are too. Wade and Yarde have something different about them – not least the kind of straight-line speed that England have been missing of late. Joseph? All the 2012 talk about the “new Jeremy Guscott” may have been over the top, but if he can stay fit for longer than five minutes he may yet mount a serious challenge to Tuilagi at outside-centre. As for Burns and Twelvetrees, it will be no great surprise to see the Gloucester creative axis firmly embedded in the England midfield at the World Cup in a little over two years’ time.
Lions years have proved difficult for England in the past, with returning players introducing fresh ideas to the mix and knocking the red-rose process out of kilter. Lancaster does not believe it will happen this time. “I remember the debate over contrasting styles of play after the last Lions tour in 2009, but I see this trip as a tick all round for us,” he said. “It will be good for the English Lions to work with other coaches and develop their games. The main challenge I envisage concerns selection. I’ll be choosing from people who have made the Lions Test team, people who have had a proper break from the game and people who have put up their hands against the Barbarians and, following on from that, our matches in South America next month.”
The England line-up for the first Test of next month’s tour against Argentina in Salta a fortnight today will feature a good number of the players involved tomorrow, but some of those on Premiership final business this afternoon will also be available. As a result, this annual bunfight with the Baa-Baas is more significant than usual, particularly for the Saracens scrum-half Richard Wigglesworth and the Exeter flanker Tom Johnson, who badly need to catch the eye if they are to survive the reintroduction of Lee Dickson and his Northampton clubmate Tom Wood.
Meanwhile, the former England attack coach, Joe Lydon, will be back on the RFU’s payroll before the start of next season, as head of international player development. Lydon, one of the most celebrated rugby league players of the 1980s, has spent recent seasons performing a similar role in Wales.
“Joe demonstrated he has a knowledge of professional rugby, credibility and a passion to make a difference,” Lancaster said.
England XV v Barbarians
15 Mike Brown (Harlequins)
14 Christian Wade (Wasps)
13 Jonathan Joseph (L Irish)
12 Billy Twelvetrees (Gloucester)
11 Marland Yarde (London Irish)
10 Freddie Burns (Gloucester)
9 Richard Wigglesworth (S’cens)
8 Ben Morgan (Gloucester)
7 Matt Kvesic (Gloucester)
6 Tom Johnson (Exeter)
5 Dave Attwood (Bath)
4 Joe Launchbury (Wasps)
3 David Wilson (Bath)
2 Rob Webber (Bath, capt)
1 Alex Corbisiero (London Irish)
Kick-off, 1pm, Twickenham, tomorrow