ENGLAND will hand an international debut to Gloucester centre Billy Twelvetrees on Saturday against Scotland at Twickenham.
The uncapped 24-year-old has only just been promoted to the senior squad but an injury to Leicester outside centre Manu Tuilagi has opened the way for Twelvetrees who moved from Leicester in the close season to further his international prospects. It has paid off.
He will line up inside Saracens’ Brad Barritt, who moves across to the No 13 shirt with Owen Farrell retained at fly-half following his impressive display against the All Blacks. Elsewhere, hooker Tom Youngs will keep his place despite the return of Northampton’s Dylan Hartley, who missed the entire autumn series with a knee injury.
In the absence of the injured Alex Corbisiero, Harlequins prop Joe Marler has seen off the challenge of Saracens’ Mako Vunipola to take his place on the loosehead.
England head coach Stuart Lancaster did have the option of starting with Toby Flood at fly-half and pairing Farrell with Barritt in the centre, a combination that did well on their respective debuts 12 months ago as England travelled to Murrayfield for the opening Six Nations match, winning 13-6. Flood started the first three matches in November but missed the New Zealand game through injury. Farrell ran the show with assurance and devil in his absence, scoring 17 points in the 38-21 victory.
However Lancaster has spoken repeatedly about the virtue of rewarding those who deliver and no one can gainsay the merit of the performance against the All Blacks. The England head coach has also never shied away from blooding new caps. Seven players made their Test debut at Murrayfield last year. In all, there have been 18 new caps in Lancaster’s 12 months in charge.
“I don’t see a lack of international experience as a barrier to international selection,” said Lancaster.
Lancaster rejected the option of handing Jonathan Joseph his fifth cap. The London Irish centre was regarded highly enough to be handed a starting role at outside centre in the second and third Tests against South Africa in June when Barritt was ruled out with an eye injury.
However Joseph has not yet become the dominant figure England want in the outside channel, taking hold of a game and using his pace to create openings. Joseph, 21, has also had to contend with being moved around the London Irish back line in recent weeks, playing at full-back and wing. England need men in form and on top of their game.
Twelvetrees has been in splendid fettle. His size, distribution skills and booming kicking game are a real asset as England look to play territory as well as deal with a strong-running Scotland back line.
What England do not yet know is whether Twelvetrees can stand up to the scrutiny of Test rugby, absorb not just the physical barrage that will undoubtedly come his way but more especially show that he can remain cool-headed and make good decisions. He has the ability but he now has to prove that he has got the temperament. His defence was once considered a weak point but that too has improved.
It is up to Twelvetrees to make the most of the experience for there is every indication that Tuilagi will be available for selection for England’s match the following week against Ireland in Dublin. His ankle injury is responding to treatment although he is not yet able to change direction when running at top speed. But as Lancaster has shown time and again, those who play well get their reward. That sense of competitiveness as well as fairness are very much hallmarks of this still new-look England.
That much is to be seen in the way that Tom Youngs has held off the renewed challenge of Hartley at hooker. Youngs has been a real force of nature for England. He began the season way down the rankings but injuries and retirements presented him with an unexpected opportunity. The older brother of scrum-half Ben took it willingly and decisively. Hartley will have to earn his stripes all over again.
There is no place either for Ben Foden who was one of nine players released back to their clubs on Tuesday night.
“We’ve had to make some tough calls with a lot of competition for places,” said Lancaster. “The players’ attitude and application in training has been first-rate.”
England also dismissed as irrelevant and predictable caustic remarks made about them by former Lions and Scotland No 8 Jim Telfer, warning that it will take more than fire and brimstone to unsettle them. Telfer called the English “too arrogant, too pretentious and too condescending to realise they have a problem”.
As for this England side, he said that “they are not as good as they think they are”, and that “players such as Chris Ashton, Danny Care, Ben Youngs and Manu Tuilagi are impressionable and think that what they read is true”.
“The lads are all taking the mickey out of each other,” said backs coach Andy Farrell. “They think it’s quite funny. People would say this about the English every year. It has stuck now. We know what we are about. We’ve been round long enough to know these games go on. It’s not got a bearing really.”
ENGLAND TEAM TO PLAY SCOTLAND AT TWICKENHAM
A Goode (Saracens); C Ashton (Saracens), B Barritt (Saracens), B Twelvetrees (Gloucester), M Brown (Harlequins); O Farrell (Saracens), B Youngs (Leicester); J Marler (Harlequins), T Youngs (Leicester), D Cole (Leicester), J Launchbury (Wasps), G Parling (Leicester), T Wood (Northampton), C Robshaw (Harlequins), (capt), B Morgan (Gloucester).
Replacements: D Hartley (Northampton), M Vunipola (Saracens), D Wilson (Bath), C Lawes (Northampton), J Haskell (Wasps), D Care (Harlequins), T Flood (Leicester), D Strettle (Saracens)
- Mick Cleary, Telegraph.co.uk