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Lancaster yet to settle on a centre partnership but signs are good for England

Stuart Lancaster has certainly shaken things up with his England selection for the third and final Test of the series against New Zealand this Saturday.

He has made seven changes, and one positional, to the team that lost by just a single point last weekend.

Two were enforced, half backs Danny Care and Owen Farrell were both ruled out through injury so the return of the first test pairing, Ben Youngs and Freddie Burns, is the sensible option.

Elsewhere though the changes are genuine selection decisions. In the forwards Dylan Hartley, Courtney Lawes, and Billy Vunipola all come in for Rob Webber, Joe Launchbury, and Luther Burrell, who drop down to the bench.

In the backline last week’s centre pairing of Billy Twelvetrees and Luther Burrell are both replaced. Twelvetrees drops out of the squad altogether, while Burell is on the bench, Lancaster has selected the exciting first test centre combination of Kyle Eastmond and Manu Tuilagi in a move that could be seen as the end of the road for Billy Twelvetrees, who has been under increasing pressure.

Tuilagi’s recall at outside centre of course means the end of Stuart Lancaster’s experiment with him on the wing, which also means a first Test cap of the season for Chris Ashton, whose return to the starting XV suggests that his redemption is now complete following an excellent season with Saracens.

It is perhaps Stuart Lancaster’s boldest selection since he first took over the squad and proceeded with his culling of the over-30s. Lancaster is not prone to making wholesale changes to his side.

Some selections are not overly telling, the half back selection is due to injury, while the return of Hartley and Vunipola is simply Lancaster returning to his strongest players in those positions.

The selection of Lawes is not necessarily bold, however dropping the world class Launchbury certainly is. It shows just how highly the England management rate Geoff Parling, and the selection battle between those three this year in the lead up to the World Cup is going to be fascinating.

Chris Ashton’s return to the side is probably a consequence of a lack of sufficiently mature wing options at the moment. Marland Yarde seems secure of his spot, however the other spot is wide open.

Jack Nowell and Christian Wade are both in the mix but are injured, while Jonny May and Anthony Watson are both in the squad. May has plenty of promise but has thus far failed to impress, while Watson is clearly a star in the making.

However it seems that Lancaster has made the sensible decision to hold back on giving Watson his debut against the best team in the world, better to bed him into the squad and the team without subjecting him to the huge test that the All Blacks would submit him to, expect to see him feature in the autumn though.

Where the real interest lies though is in the centre selection. Lancaster and the England management are clearly still unsure as to what exactly is the best centre partnership as they head into their World Cup build up.

It is clear that Manu Tuilagi is England’s most potent attacking weapon, and that his best position is 13, however in selecting him there the selection of the correct inside centre becomes a tricky task as they must posses the skills to be able to unpick the opposition defence and release the English back three.

It is why so much faith has been placed in Billy Twelvetrees over the last year or so despite some up and down performances. Despite inconsistencies, he has the type of ‘second five-eighth’ skillset that England need, particularly with Tuilagi into tow.

Brad Barritt, for all his defensive quality, is now seen as a back up option, while with Twelvetrees out of the matchday squad altogether it would seem that his fate is now in the performances of others.

Eastmond and Tuilagi impressed together in the First Test and the hope will be that they can continue to do so. Eastmond has the all round game to be able to develop into an effective inside centre alongside the giant Leicester Tiger, however he needs to keep his consistency high and show off his distribution skills.

In terms of balance, if Twelvetrees is out then Eastmond probably offers the best option. Luther Burrell plays there for his club despite all of his Test caps coming at 13, and his distribution skills are far better than they are often given credit for, however with Northampton Saints their wingers tend be brought in on hard midfield lines, particularly when North and Pisi are playing, while moving it out wide tends to involve getting Ben Foden’s hands on the ball from third receiver.

Burrell could develop that ‘second five-eighth’ role to his game, but is always going to be a secondary area of his game.

Eastmond has it in his locker, he has played fly half for Bath, the problem he may face could come from within his own club. Ollie Devoto, who won the U20s Junior World Championship last year, has been selected ahead of him in the centres for Bath of late and going forward Lancaster will struggle to be able to select Eastmond if he cannot secure a club spot. What price Ollie Devoto to sneak in for the World Cup?

For now though there is plenty of excitement at seeing Eastmond and Tuilagi together again after their First Test performance. Tuilagi’s power and Eastmond’s outrageous footwork and turn of pace caused real problems in Auckland and could well do again in Hamilton.

One thing is for certain, this is an England team that is gathering respect and momentum with every performance. They have a world class pack, arguably two, and a backline that if the correct combinations can be struck, could be devastating.

Will they be able to secure a victory in this final Test? It is unlikely, but certainly not impossible. If the first two tests are anything to go by, England will have their chances.

Either way, the road ahead looks promising.

By Angus Savage

@AngusSavageXV

England XV:

Mike Brown, Chris Ashton, Manu Tuilagi, Kyle Eastmond, Marland Yarde, Freddie Burns, Ben Youngs; Joe Marler, Dylan Hartley, David Wilson, Courtney Lawes, Geoff Parling, Tom Wood, Chris Robshaw (captain), Billy Vunipola.

Replacements: Rob Webber, Matt Mullan, Kieran Brookes, Joe Launchbury, Ben Morgan, Lee Dickson, Danny Cipriani, Luther Burrell.

New Zealand XV:

Ben Smith, Cory Jane, Malakai Fekitoa, Ma’a Nonu, Julian Savea, Aaron Cruden, Aaron Smith; Tony Woodcock, Dane Coles, Owen Franks, Brodie Retallick, Samuel Whitelock, Jerome Kaino, Richie McCaw (captain), Kieran Read.

Replacements: Keven Mealamu, Wyatt Crockett, Charlie Faumuina, Patrick Tuipulotu, Liam Messam, TJ Perenara, Beauden Barrett, Ryan Crotty.

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