Lancaster’s men face a tough test in Dublin.
England have opted to keep faith with Billy Twelvetrees for their RBS Six Nations encounter in Ireland on Sunday, despite the return of Manu Tuilagi.
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The only change to the England team that started the tournament-opening 38-18 win over Scotland last week was the return of James Haskell at blindside flanker in a back-row revamped by coach Stuart Lancaster after No 8 Ben Morgan suffered an ankle injury at Twickenham.
Gloucester centre Twelvetrees made a try-scoring Test debut last Saturday after replacing the then-injured Tuilagi, who missed the Calcutta Cup clash with an ankle problem.
But with Tuilagi now fit and England’s 2003 World Cup-winning coach Clive Woodward saying he should start against Ireland, there was intense speculation about how Lancaster would resolve a midfield conundrum also featuring Saracens centre and defensive mainstay Brad Barritt.
Friday saw Lancaster stand by Twelvetrees and Barritt, with the powerful Tuilagi — who scored one and created two of England’s three tries in their win over world champions New Zealand in December — on the bench.
“A lot of the players performed very well and with Manu coming back into the equation it gave us some selection decisions,” Lancaster said.
“But with the centres playing well last week and Manu still returning to match fitness, having not played for the last four weeks, he and others will give us great options from the bench in what I am sure will be a physical encounter.”
However, ex-England centre Woodward in his column for Friday’s Daily Mail newspaper — published before Lancaster announced his side — wrote: “If Tuilagi starts on the bench it will not be because he is ‘not 100 percent fit’.
“Every player in the squad has to be fully fit — he might have to come on after 30 seconds.”
Woodward anticipated England’s eventual midfield combination, with Barritt set to be given the task of closing down star Ireland centre Brian O’Driscoll.
“I’m sure Stuart Lancaster’s plan is for Barritt to hold off the likes of O’Driscoll in his usual warrior-like style, then release a fresh Tuilagi, who’ll be chomping at the bit after an hour,” Woodward said.
For Woodward, it was Barritt rather than Twelvetrees whose place was most under threat from Tuilagi.
“He (Lancaster) will not have chosen Barritt through loyalty… The difference lies in the subtle effect individuals can have on a squad’s attitude and performance. This is something only the coach can quantify.
“If Lancaster has chosen Barritt, I hope he has a belter of a game.”
Tuilagi took over from wing David Strettle on the bench, with Thomas Waldrom filling the replacement position vacated by Haskell.
For Haskell, Sunday’s match will be his first Six Nations start in nearly two years, with Tom Morgan moving across the back-row to take Morgan’s place at No 8 and England captain Chris Robshaw still at openside flanker.
Haskell’s last Six Nations start was also in Dublin, when England won the title but saw their 2011 Grand Slam ambitions obliterated with a 24-8 defeat by Ireland at Lansdowne Road.
The 27-year-old missed last season’s Championship in order to play club rugby in Japan but has since returned to Premiership side Wasps and re-established himself in the England set-up.
Ireland, who also started this Six Nations with a victory by beating defending Grand Slam champions Wales 30-22 in Cardiff last week, were due to announce their side later Friday at the squad’s hotel in Maynooth, near Dublin.
England have not won a Six Nations match in Dublin since a 42-6 triumph under Woodward in 2003, which was also the last year they completed a Grand Slam.