With Manu Tuilagi out of England’s one-off Test against Wales on 29th May, Owen Farrell starting for Saracens and Henry Slade preoccupied with Exeter in the Premiership final the day before, the chance for another player to come forward and persuade Eddie Jones that he should wear the 12 shirt has suddenly arisen.
Eddie Jones named both Luther Burrell and Ollie Devoto in his Brighton training man squad and the England head coach could opt to bring in Northampton’s Burrell back in from the cold, or give Bath’s Devoto a long-awaited debut.
Devoto was named on the bench for England’s Six Nations opener against Scotland back in February but never made it on to the pitch.
Burrell hasn’t played for England since August 22nd last year when he put in a solid enough performance against France.
However, his efforts in the World Cup warm-up fixture were deemed insufficient and he lost out on World Cup selection to both league-convert Sam Burgess and Exeter’s Henry Slade, who had 2 caps between them.
Warren Gatland is likely to name an ultra-experienced and physical centre combination of Jamie Roberts and Scott Williams, which could well influence Jones’ choice of centre partnership for the match.
Although Devoto is no shrinking violet and is big unit himself (standing in at 6 foot 4 no less), Jones may go with the more experienced Burrell to combat Wales’ ferocity in the midfield.
Although Wasps’ Elliot Daly has trained for England at 12 during the Six Nations campaign, this was done more to provide emergency bench cover rather than as a potential long-term option and his lack of game time at inside centre for Wasps will surely deter England’s Australian head coach from taking such a huge risk.
With World Cup seedings being decided by world rankings by next year, losing against Wales before heading off to Australia to face one of the best Test sides in world rugby in their own back yard would not be ideal.
Therefore, Jones is likely to favour a ‘win-at-all-costs’ mentality rather than trying out combinations and testing the quality of his fringe players.
Burrell and Joseph partnered each other in the 2015 Six Nations when England defeated Wales in Cardiff for the first time since 2011 despite suffering a number of injuries beforehand.
If not for Stuart Lancaster’s sudden and somewhat out of character decision to chop-and-change his centre options just before the World Cup, Burrell may well have been England’s first choice inside centre for the tournament.
It would be great no surprise then to see the Saints man rejuvenate his partnership with Bath’s twinkle-toed outside centre.
Yet Devoto and Joseph have played together for Bath on a number of occasions this season and would work well in a 10-12-13 axis with fellow clubmate George Ford at fly-half.
Additionally, Devoto is more of a second playmaker than Burrell and more in the mould of Owen Farrell or Henry Slade.
Jones will have a lot to weigh up before he names his team for Sunday’s game. Not just his centre partnership – which could well be completely different by the time England square up to the Aussies in Brisbane on 11th June – but also his backrow options, with Billy Vunipola now out of the equation.
It may mean an opportunity for Harlequins’ Jack Clifford to show off his skills at the back of the pack, where Jones has talked of Clifford excelling in the future.
Similarly, Joe Marler will be missing the whole tour and Mako Vunipola will be with Saracens, providing an opportunity to Wasps’ Matt Mullan.
England’s consistent second row partnership of Maro Itoje and George Kruis will likely be replaced with Wasps’ Joe Launchbury and Northampton’s Courtney Lawes.
An under-strength England team will be facing something very close to Wales’ first choice side at Twickenham on Sunday, and it could prove to be a real test for Eddie Jones before his full squad jet off down under.
Suddenly what once seemed like a superflous and unnecessary money-making exercise has a lot more bite to it.
Paul Wassell, Pundit Arena
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