Rugby World Cup
Call on England centres will go down to the wire
Tom Hamilton
August 19, 2015

The centres remain the chief headache for Stuart Lancaster as he trims the England squad down to 31 with a greater emphasis than ever placed on how the contenders perform in training.

Six centres remain in the current 39-man party. Luther Burrell, Jonathan Joseph and Billy Twelvetrees face auditions in the Stade de France on Saturday while Sam Burgess and Henry Slade will have to showcase their credentials in full-blooded training sessions with England's next Test match not until after the August 31 deadline for the World Cup squads to be named.

Lancaster is likely to go with four centres in the final squad but one place is already nailed down. The message from the England camp on Tuesday is that Brad Barritt, who misses out on Saturday with a tight calf, is inked into the 31-man party with Lancaster saying "if he had been fit I probably would have left him out because I think he has earned the right in terms of what he's done".

Burrell and Joseph will get their chance on Saturday after being paired in the centres and though the latter was one of the stars of England's Six Nations campaign, Lancaster says Slade's showing last weekend sent a timely reminder to those who were first choice during the championship their places in the squad are not guaranteed.

Joseph can feel confident of making the final 31 but Slade's immediate fortunes are ambiguous. Though he impressed against France, the conversation he had with Lancaster included the bigger picture away from the impending World Cup.

"With Henry, I thought he did great [against France]; there were one or two areas I thought he could have improved on which he agreed with. I said, "You are not going to be involved this weekend for this reason, however, this where we are at", for next week and the week after.

"So I'm setting out the context of selection but also moving them to a point where I want to discuss beyond the World Cup and where I see life after the World Cup as well. It is a very short-term feedback but it's also about the next two weeks, the two months and the next two years as well, for people like him [Slade]."

Burgess met with the England coach on Tuesday and although there is a school of thought he has already guaranteed his place in the final 31, Lancaster said his selection is not pre-ordained. "Perhaps they should listen to my one-2-one with him this morning," Lancaster said in response to those suggestions. "The message to all the players is 'it is one of the most competitive positions and everyone's going to have to earn the right to get in'."

Lancaster said the exact nature of his conversation with Burgess will remain private but it involved talk of his sin-bin and his general experiences of the Test match.

"I told him he wasn't playing which he was disappointed about as he is desperate to put his hand up," Lancaster said. "I told him that there is a very competitive training session coming up [yesterday afternoon] and then there is the whole of next week in training too at the end of which we will make a call.

"I've got guys like Billy Twelvetrees and Luther Burrell who have played a lot of rugby for England and done well. You're going to have perform to the best of your ability to get in the squad."

Twelvetrees only had 15 minutes against France last weekend and will get another chance come this weekend but it will again be from the bench. "He's certainly pleased he has an opportunity this weekend because I could have gone down a different route," Lancaster said. "He knows that it is a very competitive position and how he has performed in training has been excellent."

And then there are Burrell and Joseph to add into the equation. "Luther is desperate to get a game. He was a big part of our Six Nations when he formed a very effective centre partnership with JJ. Between the three of them they're itching to get out there and prove a point.

"When you're sat on the sideline and you see two centres go well, you have to step up. This is a good test for Luther because he knows he'll be up against two quality centres.

"I don't the French said but it wouldn't surprise me if it's Fofana and Bastareaud. It will be a big test for him to see if he can deal with the pressure. If we're going to be successful at the World Cup, players like him need to deliver on the big stage."

And then comes the period of purgatory for the centres ahead of next week's expected cull to the final 31. Training will include 15 versus 15 matches and performances in the comfort of their Pennyhill Park base will be weighed up against how the players fared in the warm-up matches.

"Today has helped as well in terms of clarifying my thought processes around the centre position because it was competitive out there today. Saturday will help again and we've also got Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. That particular decision around the centre combination, if you like, will I think go down to the wire."

© Tom Hamilton

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