England may finally have stumbled upon a midfield combination that will serve them well at the forthcoming World Cup –but previous false dawns guard against heightened expectation.
Six games remain until England 2015 kicks off against Fiji at Twickenham on September 18 and it would take a dramatic nosedive in form for Jonathan Joseph to be omitted at outside centre following his stellar try-scoring shifts against Wales and Italy.
The 23-year-old’s dancing feet and explosive pace have illuminated the first two rounds of the RBS 6 Nations and now the debate has moved to who should partner him.
After Italy had been routed on Saturday, coach Stuart Lancaster floated the prospect of Manu Tuilagi switching to inside centre, declaring the pair would forge a “potent combination”.
Tuilagi was the player around whom Lancaster wished to build his back line, but a chronic groin injury has sidelined the British and Irish Lions wrecking ball and he is expected to resume playing only once the Six Nations has been completed.
Luther Burrell has been solid but unspectacular at 12 in the first two rounds of the Championship and while Billy Twelvetrees’s cameos from the bench have been impressive, misgivings over his reliability will not be erased by two appearances as a replacement.
It was Tuilagi’s troublesome groin and the shoulder injury suffered by Kyle Eastmond that presented the opportunity that Joseph has seized with both hands. Joseph and Burrell are the 11th midfield duo of Lancaster’s reign, but it is the rise of the former who offers hope that the problem position that has haunted England since Will Greenwood’s retirement could soon be an area of strength
Now Lancaster must have Tuilagi restored to full fitness in time for the summer’s three World Cup warm-up games, enabling him to be picked alongside Joseph in a well-balanced pairing. Tuilagi will provide the muscle and Joseph the guile.
Twelvetrees was Lancaster’s great hope at 12, supplying the play-making option the head coach desires in the position. But he has never truly convinced and the level of midfield competition is only too clear to the Gloucester captain.
“All the centres in the Premiership this year are playing extremely well,” said Twelvetrees. “Look at Jonathan – he’s been the out and out best centre in the Premiership. Luther is extremely physical and getting over the gainline well.
“There are players not in the mix who want to be here as well. It’s a position that is hotly contested.”
Hollywood actor and director Russell Crowe, meanwhile, insists Sam Burgess should have been fast-tracked into the England team despite the indifferent start to his union career.
Crowe persuaded Burgess to leave Bradford Bulls for the South Sydney Rabbitohs in 2009 – a club the New Zealand-born star has supported since a child and now co-owns.
Burgess’s move met a scripted ending last October when the rugby league club won their first Premiership for 43 years.
Since switching codes, Burgess has been unable to impose himself in the same way for Bath and endured a disappointing evening against the Irish Wolfhounds on his debut for England’s second string Saxons last month.
A brief spell training with Lancaster’s squad has been the 26-year-old’s only senior involvement, but Crowe believes it is only a matter of time before he makes his presence felt.
“Never bet against Sam Burgess when faced with a challenge, that’s what I’d say,” said Crowe. “Sam is a fine young man and is just going to get better.
“If I was anything to do with English rugby union, I’d just select him in my squad because he’s a very fast learner.
“You want your top 30 athletes representing the country and he has to be among the top 30 athletes in union right now.”
Crowe insists, however, that if Burgess’s union career does not work out, he is welcome back at the Rabbitohs.
“Sam is a son of South Sydney,” he added. “He’s a South Sydney warrior.”