A moment of yellow-card naivety by Sam Burgess and a touch of brilliance by Henry Slade in his partner’s absence may have nosed the latter ahead in the fight for the remaining centre slot in England’s World Cup squad.
Although coach Stuart Lancaster refused to acknowledge it, the two debutants, along with replacement Billy Twelvetrees, were effectively battling for one position when they faced France in a World Cup warmup on Saturday.
Established wings Anthony Watson and Jonny May took the headlines with three tries between them in England’s 19-14 victory but the midfield battle between two very different players was the main talking point at Twickenham all evening.
Burgess, a superstar of rugby league but still a fledgling performer in union and even more so as a centre, started well and had the crowd gasping at some of his monster hits.
But his lack of experience was exposed late in the first half when instead of retreating 10 metres he interfered with an attempted French tap-penalty and was sin-binned.
While he looked on, Slade showed the instinctive skill that has fast-tracked him into the squad with a high-speed flicked pass that opened the door for England’s third try.
Both men had played a part in the second, a superb set-piece backline move, and Slade, 22, showed several more glimpses of his silky talent and clever angles before being replaced by a largely ineffective Twelvetrees after 66 minutes.
Lancaster said both men had advanced their cases. He added that no decision would be made on the back of their Saturday showing and also played down Burgess’s brain-fade moment.
“Sam was good,” he told reporters. “He’s disappointed to have put himself in the bin but generally his decision-making was good on when to pass and when to carry and his defensive physicality was good.
“He translated what we’ve seen in training which is hard to do in your first game. He gets into the line and hits people and runs good lines and that provides a balance when you are looking for that blend.”
With Jonathan Joseph, Brad Barritt and probably Luther Burrell already nailed on for the squad, Lancaster must consider who fits in well with who when he makes his final cull on August 31.
“Henry played well, took his opportunity and it’s very exciting to have people like him coming through,” he said of Slade.
“He worked well off the ball and made good decisions but it’s a very competitive position.”
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