Tuilagi could join Ashton on wing as Lancaster wields axe
Stuart Lancaster has not been afraid to wield the axe since succeeding Martin Johnson as England boss, but he has stopped well short of using a chainsaw. Until last night.
When the coach named a 24-man squad, one more than strictly required, for the contest with South Africa at Twickenham on Saturday, he left plenty of dead wood on the ground.
Three players who started against Australia last weekend – the Gloucester wing Charlie Sharples, the Exeter flanker Tom Johnson and the Leicester No 8 Thomas Waldrom – were dropped and released back to their clubs for this weekend's resumption of Premiership activity. Joe Marler, the Harlequins prop, would have joined them had he not already broken down with damaged knee ligaments.
As expected, two London Irish players recently recovered from injury – the loose-head prop Alex Corbisiero and the outside back Jonathan Joseph – survived the cull, and there is every chance that both will start against the Springboks. The other "newcomers" retained in camp were the Saracens lock Mouritz Botha, the Wasps back-rower James Haskell and the Gloucester No 8 Ben Morgan. Botha is the extra man, brought in as second-row cover for the bruised and battered Geoff Parling.
Joseph's position is intriguing: with only one specialist wing, Chris Ashton of Saracens, left in the party, there is a possibility that he will wear the No 11 shirt. The other contenders for that position are the Leicester centre Manu Tuilagi, who looks more like a wing every time he plays in midfield, and the Harlequins full-back Mike Brown. Many good judges would like to see Joseph play in his club position of outside centre, alongside the incumbent No 12 Brad Barritt, with Tuilagi deployed in the wider position.
Obliged to send "excess baggage" personnel back to their clubs under the terms of the agreement between the Rugby Football Union and the Premiership fraternity, Lancaster was bound to give something away in advance of tomorrow's team announcement. Nevertheless, he has been clever in playing this set of cards close to his chest. The precise make-up of the back division remains a puzzle and while Parling is a definite starter if fit, the race for the second locking roles is a close-run thing between the experienced Tom Palmer and the exciting youngster Joe Launchbury.
The Springbok lock Eben Etzebeth is free to face England after being cleared of a charge of gouging the Scotland outside-half Greig Laidlaw during last Saturday's win at Murrayfield.
Meanwhile, the Wales coach, Warren Gatland, back in Red Dragon mode after spending the last few weeks on British and Irish Lions business, has reacted to his side's demoralising defeat by Samoa by making five changes for the visit of the All Blacks this weekend.
Sam Warburton returns to lead the side from the open-side flank and he will be joined up front by the hooker Matthew Rees and the France-based lock Luke Charteris, who was one of the stand-out performers at last year's World Cup. Outside the scrum, there will be starts for Rhys Priestland at outside-half and Jonathan Davies at centre.
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