Crusaders win shows England depth but Lancaster should give the Tuilagi experiment a final try & keep changes to a minimum

Having lost the opening two Test of their Summer Tour of New Zealand, a strong win over The Crusaders was the only acceptable outcome for England’s midweek XV today.

They did that with aplomb, winning commandingly by 38-7, with several players putting their hands up for selections, if not for Saturday then for the future.

It was a game that demonstrated further something that had already been made abundantly apparent between the first and second tests, that England currently have tremendous depth in their squad.

Alex Waller is a fine loosehead but with Vunipola, Marler, and Corbisiero ahead of him he is unlikely to get another go before the World Cup, Ed Slater and Dave Attwood are outstanding in the second row but must evade the not inconsiderable frames of Joe Launchbury, Geoff Parling, and Courtney Lawes to get a look in.

In the back row James Haskell is playing his best rugby for many years, while Matt Kvesic turned in his best performance of the season by a distance, finally showing why Stuart Lancaster believes he is Chris Robshaw’s understudy.

Is the backs Alex Goode is a classy operator who must be kicking himself to have risen to form at the same time as Mike Brown, while Ben Foden, a brilliant full back himself, is being forced to morph into a winger as a result of their brilliance. He is not doing a bad job either, his finish for his try was a typically opportunistic and skillful ‘wingers’ finish.

On the opposite flank Anthony Watson is a star in the marking, his try was outstanding and it is surely only a matter of time before he is in that England 1st XV, but there is talent there too – Marland Yarde, Jonny May and Chris Ashton are here in New Zealand, while Christian Wade and Watson’s old U20s teammate, Jack Nowell, are both injured at home.

Brad Barritt continues to be Mr Reliable in the midfield. His starting days for England might be over but he will be in that World Cup squad without a shadow of a doubt. Inside him Lee Dickson’s struggle with Ben Youngs to be Danny Care’s understudy looks set to be fascinating, while the return of Danny Cipriani cannot be described as anything other than a success.

Cipriani has not been flashy and has made a point of trying to control the game’s tempo but that old magic has still be there when necessary, as it was to set up Joe Gray’s score.

He still has work to do though. Stuart Lancaster will take three fly halves to the World Cup and at the moment Owen Farrell and George Ford surely have two of those tied up, while Freddie Burns’ performance in the 1st Test puts him in pole position for slot three.

Cipriani is therefore probably in a tussle with Stephen Myler for the standby list, with Exeter Chiefs’ Henry Slade not far behind. Burns’ grip on the third choice spot is only likely to get firmer after it was confirmed that Owen Farrell will miss the third Test with a knee injury, paving the way for a second start of the tour for Burns.

Assuming Burns does start then Cipriani will surely get another cameo run from the bench, he started ahead of Myler against the Crusaders so one would think he is the preferred choice.

Will Lancaster make any other changes?

There will probably be a few, Joe Marler and David Wilson are pretty nailed on to start but Rob Webber may give way for Dylan Hartley, whose experience and leadership could be useful.

There will be calls for Courtney Lawes to return to the second row but Geoff Parling was a standout player on Saturday and Joe Launchbury is a true world force alongside. In the back row Lancaster may consider using Billy Vunipola ahead of Ben Morgan though.

That means no place for any of the pack from the Crusaders game but it was always likely to be a long shot that anyone would jump from Tuesday starter to Saturday starter, barring injury.

The backline is where things get interesting though, first there is the Owen Farrell (and possibly Danny Care’s) injury, and second there is the Tuilagi on the wing experiment.

To deal with the first point, as we have already said Freddie Burns is likely to start, and if Care is injured then Ben Youngs is surely the most likely replacement, despite Dickson impressing today, because of the familiarity between him and Burns after the first Test.

The Tuilagi experiment has been widely dismissed as a failure by many, however a lot of criticisms have been for reasons that are not really relevant. Many have cited his failure to complete his 80 yard breakaway – he actually did little wrong, yes quicker wingers would have got there but he is hardly slow. Ben Smith put in a wonderful tackle, and really it is there that the focus should lie. There and Mike Brown’s unusual support line.

The other criticism was that the best of Tuialgi was not seen, that he did not get enough ball. That in part is his fault maybe for not looking for it enough, but it is also the fault of those around him for not playing him in – that is something that can be fixed though.

Do I think it worked as an experiment? Perhaps the most accurate answer is that I do not think it failed. In any case though, it seems worth having another go now because this really is the last chance to do so, and I suspect it is what Stuart Lancaster will do.

That would mean no space for Anthony Watson, however it would be good to see him given an opportunity from the bench, particularly as he can cover full back too.

What these selection debates show, and the strong performance against the Crusaders and in the First Test, is that the depth and variety of options available to Stuart Lancaster are as good as any since he took over the job. That does not mean that England are in pole position for the third Test, but it does mean that selection decisions can be based on positives.

My England XV for the 3rd Test:

15 Brown,  14 Tuilagi  13 Burrell,  12 Twelvetrees,  11 Yarde,  10 Burns,  9 Care (if injured, Youngs);  1 Marle,r  2 Hartle,y  3 Wilson,  4 Launchbury,  5 Parling,  6 Wood,  7 Robshaw (c),  8 Vunipola.

Replacements: 16 Webber  17 Waller  18 Thomas  19 Lawes  20 Morgan  21 Youngs (or Dickson)  22 Cipriani  23 Watson.

By Angus Savage

@AngusSavageXV

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