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Big call from Lancaster but there is ‘Lomu style’ potential in Tuilagi

Stuart Lancaster has faced problably his most difficult selection dilemma since he became England Head Coach in selecting the England team for the second Test against New Zealand, and has made arguably his most striking selection in that period too.

That selection is of course the decision to start Manu Tuilagi on the wing. Tuilagi played his age-grade rugby there but the reality is that this is a step into a new world for both England and their new bulldozing winger.

In theory it is a selection that could be truly destructive, allowing England a more creative midfield that thrived in the Six Nations, Twelvetrees and Burrell, which allows Tuilagi to come in on different lines to create havoc either through strike moves or by tracking Burrell for the offload.

It also gives Tuilagi the space and time out wide to potentially cause even more damage when he gets the ball, think of his elder brother Alessana or even, if you pardon the exaggeration, a Jonah Lomu style winger.

The problem Stuart Lancaster had is that Tuilagi is perhaps his most dangerous player, but in terms of how he wants his team to play and develop, the Twelvetrees/Burrell centre combination is a better fit. Moving Tuilagi allows him to pick a side that fits the team’s style but that also keeps their biggest threat.

There are obvious flaws. In all rugby, but international rugby in particular, wingers are becoming more and more like auxiliary full backs. England negate that to an extent with their ‘wingers up’ style of defence, but the fact is that there is a lot of judgment and defensive maneuvering demanded of the wingers – they must still drop deep at times.

That means that Tuilagi will have to take a lot of high ball, will undoubtedly have to do some kicking and will have to adapt to his new defensive role fast. Criticisms of the 23-year-old Leicester Tiger in the past focused on his defensive ‘excitement’. Not so much a weakness in technique as a weakness in positioning, he had desire to fly up and make the hit, getting himself out of shape and out of line.

That has been relatively ironed out as he has learned about defence and gained top class experience at 13, but with no top class experience on the wing those positional lapses could sneak in, particularly in such a positionally complex area of the field.

To the best of our knowledge his kicking game is not the best, or is at the very least untested, that represents a risk for England as the All Blacks will undoubtedly be looking to target Tuilagi to test if he is up to the task. Lancaster’s big hope though is that his sheer attacking force will outweigh those potential problems.

Lancaster has protected him as much as possible though. With Mike Brown at full back England have one of the most reliable men around. He will be under instruction to be taking as much ball as possible and to be on Tuilagi’s shoulder at all times if the new winger finds the high ball and a kick his needed. He will also surely be directing proceeds in defence from behind along with England’s defensive leaders.

Lancaster has also carefully selected Tuilagi opposite Julian Savea rather than Cory Jane. That may not seem like a particularly significant decision but Jane is something of a high ball specialist so having him on the other wing will make Tuilagi’s life a little easier.

Tuilagi aside, the big news really is Lancaster’s lack of changes in the forward pack. Just one change has been made there form the side that lost 20-15 in the First Test, with Tom Wood coming in on the blindside of James Haskell.

That means that the likes of Ben Morgan, Geoff Parling, and Rob Webber, who were all considered vulnerable despite outstanding games, all retain their places, with Billy Vunipola, Courtney Lawes, and Dylan Hartley left on the bench rather than stepping straight back into the team.

It must have been one of the hardest selection decisions that Lancaster has had to make – go back to the guys who served him so well in the 6 Nations, or keep faith with those who performed well in the previous game?

In the end he stuck with those who had played the first Test, and it is hard to fault him. Rob Webber, despite being the least experienced, was probably the easiest choice as Dylan Hartley is short on game time but it must still have been a close call.

Parling over Lawes and Morgan over Vunipola might seem controversial to some, but it should be noted that Parling is a British and Irish Lions Test starter and a key leader in the England group, just watch how often he is involved when they come together, while Morgan was the starting number 8 ahead of Vunipola in the autumn.

Possibly what swung the vote in the favour  of last week’s incumbents though is the sheer presence that the others offer from the bench. No side will enjoy the likes of Hartley, Lawes, and Vunipola coming on with half an hour to go. That is quite some power that England have waiting in reserve.

The slight worry on the bench is the presence of Chris Ashton. Not in the normal and seemingly fashionable ‘Chris Ashton bashing’ sense, but because it leaves England without notable full back cover.

Freddie Burns will cover full back, however given the importance of Mike Brown with Manu Tuilagi on the wing, it is a surprise not to see a player who can fully cover both full back and wing, such as Anthony Watson or Ben Foden. The thinking will be that given Tuilagi’s inexperience they should have specialist and experience cover, which makes sense, but Lancaster will be praying that Brown stays in one piece.

What this selection has shown though is that England are now in an incredibly healthy position. They have genuine competition for places from one to fifteen, something that has not been the case for a few years.

Lancaster has made a few bold calls and it is on such calls than management can sometimes be judged. However with just under a year and a half to go until the World Cup, when else could Lancaster try this Tuilagi experiment?

New Zealand will be the favourites tomorrow morning, they tend only to have one wobble a season and last weekend definitely qualifies for that, however England are a side very much on the up, bursting with confidence and pride, and they have a team who to a man are desperate to perform, knowing that there is a man waiting to slot in if they do not.

Prediction: New Zealand by two tries.

New Zealand v England, 08.35, Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin. (Sky Sports 1)

By Angus Savage

@AngusSavageXV

England: Mike Brown, Manu Tuilagi, Luther Burrell, Billy Twelvetrees, Marland Yarde, Owen Farrell, Danny Care; Ben Morgan, Chris Robshaw (captain), Tom Wood, Geoff Parling, Joe Launchbury, David Wilson, Rob Webber, Joe Marler.

Replacements: Dylan Hartley, Matt Mullan, Kieran Brookes, Courtney Lawes, Billy Vunipola, Ben Youngs, Freddie Burns, Chris Ashton.

New Zealand: Ben Smith, Cory Jane, Conrad Smith, Ma’a Nonu, Julian Savea, Aaron Cruden, Aaron Smith; Jerome Kaino, Richie McCaw (captain), Liam Messam, Sam Whitelock, Brodie Retallick, Owen Franks, Dane Coles, Tony Woodcock.

Replacements: Keven Mealamu, Wyatt Crockett, Charlie Faumuina, Patrick Tuipulotu, Victor Vito, TJ Perenara, Beauden Barrett, Malakai Fekitoa.

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