With fewer than 100 days until the World Cup, question marks over England’s crucial inside-centre position abound, with Brad Barritt, Billy Twelvetrees, Kyle Eastmond, Luther Burrell and even newcomer Henry Slade vying to partner Six Nations hero Jonathan Joseph.
The smart money is on Saracens’ defensive linchpin Barritt being restored following his outstanding recent displays in both the Premiership semi-final and final. Barritt missed this year’s Six Nations through injury but was Lancaster’s main ‘go to’ man during the autumn.
Worcester boss Ryan remains unconvinced, however, telling The Rugby Paper: “England might turn to Brad Barritt but I’ve never really been a fan because it sets the stall out lower than it needs to be. But every time they’ve tried to go above that, they’ve failed.
“I think they were waiting for Manu Tuilagi to come back and it hasn’t worked. Billy Twelvetrees hasn’t worked, Kyle Eastmond didn’t work to the levels they wanted and they even tried Owen Farrell there in the autumn when he was banged up and out of form.
“England just don’t have a settled No.12. They’ve got lots of people who’ve had a go at it but they need to find a clear identity and there isn’t much time left for jumping around now.
“They may return to Brad but I wouldn’t say I’m a fan, although you can’t knock what he does with Saracens at that level. He’s been phenomenal at that level alongside Farrell, which creates its own strong identity, but whether that’s right for a World Cup, I’m not sure.
“Jonathan Joseph looks a real threat at outside-centre and if England can find the right combination they look a side capable of threatening at the top end, but they haven’t managed to do that over the last two or three years and there’s big pressure on them to do it now.”
Fifty players will assemble at England’s training camp next week, all with hopes of making Lancaster’s final 31-man World Cup squad. But in reality, Ryan believes 29 of those places are already filled, with the only remaining arguments concerning ‘hybrid’ players.
That spells bad news for Danny Cipriani, who still has a potential drink-driving charge hanging over him, but could bring glad tidings for Exeter’s rising star Slade.
Ryan explained: “Now that Danny’s fallen on his sword you may as well say that takes care of Henry Slade’s selection and virtually everything else is done. The next two months will see lots of media speculation on ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’, but the reality is we know 29 of them.
“You pick all the established players, so you’re only really debating one or two positions now, while a lot of the 50-man squad is about building contingencies for people falling over injured during the World Cup or suffering more disciplinary problems. You’re only really arguing over a hybrid who can play in the second or back-row, like a Nick Easter, or a prop.”
Before the autumn series, Ryan expressed concern over a lack of world-class leaders within England’s ranks. He believes that issue has been alleviated as far as the forwards are concerned, but says the lack of experience in the back-line remains a worry.
He added: “Dylan Hartley is a loss because he is a leader of men at Northampton, but I do see leaders emerging up front for England now and I see it behind the scrum in George Ford and Farrell. Both of them have got the strength of character to lead the side.
“There’s a great experience across Courtney Lawes, Joe Launchbury, Tom Wood and Chris Robshaw now and the back five of that scrum is world-class, but the reality is numbers 11, 12, 13 and 14 are going to be pretty inexperienced now whoever you pick.
“If it’s going to be Jack Nowell, Kyle Eastmond, Jonathan Joseph and Anthony Watson, they’ve got great talent but they’ll be under huge pressure. Until you’re in the middle of that World Cup environment, you just won’t know who the people are who will perform.”
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