Lancaster rolls the dice
Tom Hamilton in Dunedin
June 12, 2014
Manu Tuilagi faces one of the biggest challenges of his career on Saturday © Getty Images
This is the biggest selection call of the Stuart Lancaster era. It was a team confirmed after seeing the squad in action at Tuesday lunchtime and only then did Lancaster feel comfortable with picking Manu Tuilagi on the wing, somewhere he has seldom played since he first broke on to the professional scene.
Last weekend Tuilagi caused the All Blacks all sorts of headaches. He was England's main strike runner, their ballast in the middle of the pitch, and carried with a fearless abandon. He completely outplayed Ma'a Nonu in that physical ball-carrying role he loves and there is little higher praise than that.
But come Saturday he will be in a different spot. Wales have utilised George North's physicality in the past from the flank as they tease him in from the wing and use him as a battering ram in the middle of the pitch so expect England to do the same, but in the space of a week, Tuilagi has had to learn a new position and exactly how that fits into the Lancaster system.
It has been a potential positional shift that has been on Lancaster's mind for some while. It was something born between six to 12 months ago but has been in the far-reaching corners of Lancaster's brain since his days with the Saxons when he saw Tuilagi playing on the wing at age-grade level.
While he has rarely played there for Leicester - there were three occasions in the 2010-11 campaign when he started on the flank - Lancaster has seen enough in him to regard him as a Test winger. Saturday could be Tuilagi's biggest challenge to date. He will be up against Julian Savea and while tackling him is a challenge in itself, he will also be expected to play a key role in England's kick chase and in defence, rather than being the man sweeping behind the winger as England have used their centres in the past, he will be the man running up in the line.
It is a lot to take in but this is not a flippant call. Lancaster has spent time this week with Tuilagi ensuring he is happy with the role he is expected to play. He can expect to see a fair bit of ball but Lancaster has been quick to play down any notion of Saturday's game plan becoming a case of throw it to Manu, instead he has been quick to look to the positives of the situation.
"We've got that balance in our backline I guess we've always looked for, which is pace, power, ball-carrying and footballers as well," Lancaster said. Within that cocktail are the two centres which linked up in the Six Nations - Billy Twelvetrees and Luther Burrell.
It really is a case, in Lancaster's mind, of getting their best players on the pitch but it is a gamble. "All you can do is trust your instincts in what you see in training," was the answer when questioned about Twelvetrees' fitness but it is a mantra that is perhaps applicable to the whole selection.
Rob Webber continues at hooker © Getty Images
While Tuilagi will play a key role, so will the bench. Lancaster has kept the faith with Rob Webber at hooker, his two second-rows and Ben Morgan at No.8 but while last Saturday's bench was a touch wet behind the ears, this weekend's will bring fire and brimstone when Billy Vunipola, Courtney Lawes and Dylan Hartley are unleashed.
It's all a case of looking to a year's time and the World Cup rather than the present for Lancaster. That was what Phil Vickery questioned in his column and it is more than winning a Test match for Lancaster, it is a case of bringing together a team capable of winning the big prize on home soil come 2015.
"It's all about for me learning about individuals and combinations now and not in 12 months time," Lancaster said. "At some point you have to make a decision and you have to think not just about the short-term but also about the medium to long term."
This team selection is a gamble, it is also a test of just how close-knit this group of players are. Individuals would have had noses put out of joint, those who missed last Saturday's game due to reaching the Premiership final may feel aggrieved at not getting a chance this weekend while the likes of James Haskell and Kyle Eastmond may feel hard done by after impressive performances at Eden Park but it is all about the bigger picture and Lancaster is happy there is no bad blood. "The players have been outstanding, there hasn't been one sense, for me, of any cracks whatsoever."
This is a proactive selection from Lancaster. So often England teams in the past have been far too worried about the opposition's strengths to think about their own points of difference. This is an England team who are playing with confidence but both they and coach face a monumental test at the weekend, as Lancaster well knows. "It's on my head as head coach whether we get it right or not this weekend.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd
Tom Hamilton is the Associate Editor of ESPNscrum.
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