Rarely has there been so much excitement, or so much doubt, surrounding an England team selection. The unavailability of so many players for the first test was a horrendous administrative error, and one that potentially ruined England’s best chance of beating New Zealand on home soil for just the third time ever, but if there is one silver lining it’s that this week has been on another level with regards to the excited chatter surrounding selection for the second test.
Which of the returning players would slot back in at the expense of someone who performed well last weekend? Which players would be deemed to have done a good enough job to keep their places, regardless of the return of the Six Nations stalwarts?
In the end, there are five player changes to the starting XV, with two positional changes. Billy Twelvetrees and Luther Burrell resume their Six Nations partnership in the centre, with Manu Tuilagi shifting to the right wing in place of Marland Yarde, who shifts to the other flank as Jonny May drops out of the squad. Danny Care and Owen Farrell start at half-back, as Ben Youngs and Freddie Burns drop to the bench, while Tom Wood comes onto the blindside flank for James Haskell, who is also dropped.
From first test performances, Haskell and Kyle Eastmond can feel hardest done by. Haskell was superb, fronting up physically to the much-vaunted New Zealand trio and more often than not coming out on top. Tom Wood, after a gruelling and emotional few weeks with Northampton, now has to step immediately into the breach.
Eastmond was a revelation in the 12 shirt. He is capable of doing things no England centre can do, with his quick feet and vision. He is a quality distributor, too, and held up in defence against the not-inconsiderable challenge of Ma’a Nonu.
In the midst of all the excitement, however, take a moment to think back to the Six Nations. Billy Twelvetrees and Luther Burrell were a revelation as a partnership. Burrell’s ability to hit a gap and time his run to arrive at just the right moment saw him cross the line three times in five games.
Twelvetrees comes in for a lot of stick these days, but it is easy to underestimate his influence on the backline, and in particular Owen Farrell. Farrell does not have the same level of attacking instinct of a Freddie Burns or a Danny Cipriani, so knowing Twelvetrees is there as an option to distribute secondarily relaxes Farrell. Those moaning about his inclusion have short memories – it is a little over a year since Brad Barritt was the incumbent at 12.
Many positives have come from Lancaster’s tenure thus far – the redefinition of a true England ‘culture’, the reestablishment of the England pack as a force to be reckoned with, the transformation of several young players into first team regulars. One accusation that had been levelled at him, however, was a conservative nature in selection – the persistence with the likes of Barritt, and Ashton when patently not on form, had people scratching their heads.
That is not true any more. The move of Manu Tuilagi to the wing is an incredibly brave decision. The giant centre has not played there regularly since junior level, and given that defensive organisation and spatial awareness – two qualities of paramount importance in a winger – are far from his strong suits, it is even more of a gamble. Expect Aaron Cruden and Ma’a Nonu to chip and grubber it in behind him all day.
But in attack, he has all the qualities to thrive on the wing. He has much more pace than people realise, and if he finds himself in a bit more space then he can combine that pace with his obvious power much more effectively than he can in the centre, where he often takes the ball from a more standing start. It will also allow him to roam a bit more, and no doubt England have been working on moves that will see him taking the ball from the first or second receiver.
The other selections of note are in the pack, where Rob Webber and Geoff Parling retain their places ahead of Dylan Hartley and Courney Lawes. Webber’s makes sense as Hartley could be a bit rusty still, plus the Bath man was exemplary in the first test, but leaving Lawes on the bench is a mistake. Yes, Parling is a British and Irish Lion and lineout guru – although he offers a lot more than just that, it must be said – but Lawes is in the form of his life right now. He has proven that he can run the lineouts, and his tackling this season has been superb – the timing as well as the physicality. He will add impact off the bench, but he could have had that impact for the entire game.
All in all, though, this selection shows Lancaster is ready to roll the dice. Not all of the decisions will pay off. In fact, one could backfire spectacularly. But, 15 months out from the World Cup, now is the time to be trying these things out. If it clicks, that team could be one of the most dangerous in the world. If it doesn’t, at least we won’t die wondering.
By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images