Twelvetrees may fill gaping hole left by Tuilagi's withdrawal
Filling a hole the size of Manu Tuilagi is no easy task but England will have no alternative for their opening Six Nations fixture against Scotland. The head coach, Stuart Lancaster, must identify a new centre pairing as a result of Tuilagi’s withdrawal and is also pondering several other delicate selection issues.
Tuilagi was always struggling to face the Scots and is not yet guaranteed to be available for the subsequent trip to Ireland. He has strained the upper part of his ankle and Lancaster said he will not play if there is a risk of aggravating the injury.
Top of the list of replacement centres to play alongside Brad Barritt, assuming Lancaster sticks to his policy of deploying Owen Farrell at out-half, is Gloucester’s uncapped Billy Twelvetrees, who appears a likelier starter than London Irish’s Jonathan Joseph.
Lancaster is not due to finalise his starting XV until Thursday but he made a point of stressing that England cannot afford to be outmuscled by a hefty Scottish outfit.
“They’re not a small side so we need to make sure we match them in that area,” he said. “I’ve said all along we want some footballers in our back line but we also have to get across the gain-line. I haven’t worried in the past about picking uncapped players.”
Harlequins’ Mike Brown is poised to retain his place in the back three having played well against New Zealand. Alex Goode proved his fitness at the weekend following a shoulder problem; it would be a surprise if he is not retained. Dylan Hartley is hopeful of ousting Tom Youngs, while Harlequins’ Joe Marler has shown decent form and must be a favourite to pip Saracens’ Mako Vunipola at loosehead in the task of replacing the injured Alex Corbisiero.
Corbisiero had an operation last Wednesday to fix the knee troubling him since England’s close-season tour of South Africa. He had been expected to miss at least the first two Six Nations games but Lancaster confirmed he would play no part in the tournament.
Switch in halfbacks
Scotland, meanwhile, have kept their captain, Kelly Brown, but are expected to announce a switch in halfbacks and at least one new back when the side to play England is announced today.
Scott Johnson, the interim head coach, has dropped large hints he considers Greig Laidlaw more a scrumhalf than a outhalf so that is where the 27-year-old is likely to play. Laidlaw made his Scotland debut at scrumhalf but has worn 10 for the past 10 Tests.
Johnson will hand the 10 shirt to Ruaridh Jackson but Laidlaw will be the understudy outhalf after Bath’s Tom Heathcote was left out when Johnson slimmed his squad from 35 to 27. However, the uncapped Kiwi wing Sean Maitland remains.