If any area of his team has been giving Stuart Lancaster sleepless nights lately, it is his midfield.
This time last year the England head coach was settled on Brad Barritt and Manu Tuilagi as his first-choice Nos. 12 and 13. Despite obvious and justified concerns he had two broadswords and no rapier occupying the shirts, Lancaster was largely vindicated with the pair’s performance in that thrilling win over the All Blacks.
A year on, however, injury has robbed Lancaster of both the Saracen and the Tiger, and he needs to blood a new partnership for this autumn’s examinations by Australia, Argentina and New Zealand.
Billy Twelvetrees, as the man in possession of the No. 12 shirt, is odds on to hold that position down, with a chance to make it his own for the long term.
Outside him is where Lancaster has the issue. Having picked Joel Tomkins and Henry Trinder, it’s likely one of the two will start alongside Twelvetrees, with Luther Burrell the third centre drafted in as injury cover.
Let’s have a look at what each man can bring to the England midfield.
Tomkins enters the England fray after just one season as a rugby union player, but his quality in the 13-man code suggests he can make the step up.
Tomkins was first picked as a flanker when he joined Saracens, but his ability with ball in hand quickly saw him shifted to centre where he formed a strong partnership with Brad Barritt.
But despite displaying an ability to run great lines and offload superbly—and form part of a sturdy Saracens defence—he was dropped last Friday for Sarries’ crunch Heineken Cup clash with Toulouse. It’s slightly confusing given his coach Mark McCall’s comparison of Tomkins with the great All Black Conrad Smith just two weeks earlier.
There haven’t been many players in an England shirt lately who can get the ball away cleanly from a tackle on a consistent basis.
Tomkins has provided plenty of evidence he can do that, and with an in-form Chris Ashton looking hungry once again, Tomkins' game could well suit his club-mate on the wing.
With Billy Twelvetrees set to start at No. 12, Lancaster might see a certain logic to inserting his club-mate Trinder alongside him.
That would still represent a gamble by the England selectors, bearing in mind Trinder hasn’t featured since September 29 for Gloucester with a hamstring problem, which explains Burrell’s presence in the squad as injury cover.
Trinder wasn’t picked in the 65-man elite group named in the summer, so on the basis of four matches this campaign, it is quite some rise.
Trinder is a more uncomplicated type of centre than Tomkins, happy to charge head-on at the opposition and capable of beating players on his own.
Perhaps his understanding with Twelvetrees gives him the edge in the battle for the starting spot. With so relatively little rugby under his belt of late, it would be the strength of Lancaster’s faith in that club combination that a start for Trinder would be based on.
Stuart Lancaster was the man who persuaded Burrell his future lay in the 15-man game, and he seems ready to affirm that faith with this call-up.
With the Saints man only drafted in as injury cover, however, it would seem the fight for the starting spot is between Tomkins and Trinder.
Burrell has the chance to impress, though. He has been one of the most eye-catching performers in the Aviva Premiership this season so far, with a knack for busting tackles and creating space for those around him by occupying more than one tackler attempting to bring him down.
Out of the three players, Burrell is probably the closest comparison to Manu Tuilagi in terms of size and physicality. If opportunity knocks, expect Burrell to barge the door down.
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