Whilst most of the England starting XV has now been nailed down, there is still some serious debate as to who should start at inside centre. Injuries and suspensions have somewhat hampered the process, however now is the time to nail down who is going to start inside Jonathan Joseph barring injury. Below we rank the key contenders for the number 12 shirt;
The Saracens man looks to be in pole position for the starting shirt, although recent injury issues mean he may only have one game before the World Cup in which to stake his claim. Barritt will miss both of the tests against France meaning he could go into the World Cup having only played alongside Jonathan Joseph and George Ford once.
Barritt looks the most likely starter however thanks to his defensive prowess. Lancaster has long been an admirer of his ability to organise the defence and put his body on the line when tackling. There are some concerns over his ability to break through the gainline, however having the likes of Ford and Joseph around him may help to negate these potential hurdles.
The biggest plus in the Luther Burrell column is that he has been heavily involved in most of England’s games over the last couple of years, either at inside or outside centre. He was Jonathan Joseph’s partner during the 2015 Six Nations meaning he has already had chance to develop a relationship with key players in the team.
That being said, his form this season has been a bit off as he struggled to impose himself for either club or country. For a big centre he often fails to make much ground in contact, whilst his tackling stats don’t make for great reading. He now needs a big game against France in order to stake a claim for inclusion in the final squad.
Burgess’ stock has risen and fallen over the course of the last nine months, however an impressive international debut against France has put him back in serious contention for World Cup inclusion. The biggest issue Burgess will have to overcome is a lack of rugby union experience, particularly on the international stage.
Whilst it’s unlikely Burgess will be starting in the first game against Fiji, his chances of making the squad are looking more positive where he could provide solid cover. He has been highlighted as a key leader in the squad, and has vast experience when it comes to high pressure situations, whilst his power style of play may suit those selected around him.
At the moment it looks like Farrell is being seen primarily as a fly half, however he does have the ability to play both 12 and 13 if called upon. In fact, during the junior world championships, Farrell played at 12 outside of George Ford in a winning team proving the combination has the potential to work.
The issue is that this option hasn’t really been tested of late meaning Farrell is only likely to play 12 as cover rather than as a starter. That being said, it’s definitely an option that could be worth further exploration as it would allow England to look at some other options in the squad (perhaps the inclusion of Danny Cipriani).
Although Slade is primarily seen as a 13 these days, he does have the ability to play 12 in addition to 10 and 15. This versatility could be seen as a key asset, whilst he was another who impressed during his debut against France. By selecting Slade, Lancaster would also provide England with solid cover should Joseph pick up an injury.
The biggest red mark against Slade’s name currently is his lack of big game experience, and Lancaster has already hinted that the 2015 World Cup may just have come a year too early for him. At this stage it looks like Slade’s chances may rest on whether or not Burrell and Twelvetrees can adequately impress before the final squad is selected.
The Gloucester centre was highlighted as England’s preferred option at 12 when Stuart Lancaster took over, however his continued failure to maintain his form has seen him slip down the pecking order. He has shown in flashes he has all the skills to make a top class 12, however unless he shows this against France then he may struggle to make the final cut.
His experience, and ability to also cover 10 definitely count in his favour, but the fact he has been selected on the bench for both games against France suggest he has it all to do. Whilst I’m sure many fans would love to see Twelvetrees consistently perform to his potential, his inclusion over the likes of Slade may be seen as a conservative approach.
I’ve listed the players in descending order as to likelihood of being selected, although in my opinion the four centres for the World Cup should be Brad Barritt, Jonathan Joseph, Sam Burgess and Henry Slade.