Stuart Lancaster insists Owen Farrell must excel during the World Cup warm-up matches if he is displace George Ford as England’s fly-half.
Ford took advantage of Farrell’s injury-enforced absence during the 2015 RBS Six Nations by bringing a new dimension to the Red Rose attacking game and remains the incumbent in the position.
When the two faced off for Bath and Saracens in the Aviva Premiership final two months later, it was Farrell who emerged as the outstanding playmaker in a one-sided afternoon at Twickenham.
Opinions are divided over who should be England’s fly-half with the creative spark offered by Ford offset by the reliability and temperament of Farrell, while Danny Cipriani is an outsider in the race at 10.
Lancaster will use the trio of warm-up games, which start against France on August 15, to clarify his thinking, but suggests that it is Ford who is in the driving seat.
“George was exceptional for us during the Six Nations and for Bath beyond that, so Owen’s going to have to go over and beyond that to get the shirt back off him. But knowing Owen as I do....” head coach Lancaster said.
“Danny obviously has to then get himself above those two to get his opportunity. I’ll create opportunities for all of them and that will help dictate.
“George is in a strong position at the moment, but he needs to play well because he’s competing against good players.”
Of the four centres Lancaster will take to England 2015, Brad Barritt and Jonathan Joseph are certainties, leaving Sam Burgess, Henry Slade, Luther Burrell, Kyle Eastmond and Billy Twelvetrees as the remaining contenders.
The 45-strong squad that returned to Pennyhill Park on Sunday will be reduced by eight or nine players on Friday, with Eastmond and Twelvetrees among those expected to be sent home.
Lancaster has been impressed by the uncapped Slade in training.
But he insists it is the two warm-up matches against France – England travel to Paris on September 22 – that will prove decisive.
“Slade’s going to be in the mix, but it’s going to be a tight call. The centre position will take a while to play out. We will use the games to make the decisions,” Lancaster said.
Jonny May is in pole position to fill the final wing spot behind Anthony Watson and Jack Nowell after excelling in the World Cup training camp to date.
“Jonny has been the stand-out performer in the squad so far. He’s been really excellent. He’s really got the bit between his teeth,” Lancaster said.
Lancaster expects the majority of the side picked against France at Twickenham will be present in his final 31-man World Cup squad, and will make “big changes” for the trip to Paris, before settling on his strongest 23 to face Ireland at home on September 5.
Meanwhile, Burgess insists he will continue emptying the tanks in his pursuit of a place in England’s World Cup squad as an inside centre.
Head coach Lancaster has told Burgess he will only be considered as a midfield option and not at blindside flanker, the position in which he produced his best rugby since switching codes to join Bath last October.
The 26-year-old is happy with Lancaster’s decision as he concentrates on surviving the reduction in the 45-man World Cup training squad on Friday.
“The way I look at it is I am under Stuart and it is his call,” Burgess said.
“Wherever he wants to play me I will give it my best shot and try and earn my team-mates’ respect and feel comfortable with where I am playing.
“I just get on with the job.
“I am certainly proud of the strides I have made in union from day one to now.
“I’m not going to sit on it, there’s still a lot of work to be done.
“There’s a long way to go to get into the squad and then be successful within that. I am going to continue working hard but if someone says ‘are you proud?’, I would definitely say yes.
“I’m quite relaxed with the World Cup being so close. There are cuts coming soon, so I’m just enjoying improving on a daily basis. When the games come, the games come. If I am still around, I am still around.
“For now, I just try to better myself daily because as I said you never know when your journey is going to finish.”
Cipriani, who was arrested on suspicion of drink driving following an early morning car crash, is due to be available for England’s World Cup campaign after he was re-bailed until November.
The Sale fly-half was unhurt in a collision between his Mercedes and a Toyota in the Chelsea area of west London shortly after 5am on June 1.
He was given a breath test and taken to a west London police station before being released on bail.
A police spokesman confirmed that the 27-year-old had been re-bailed to a date in mid-November pending further inquiries.
That means Cipriani will be available for the tournament which ends on October 31.