The partnerships in the centre have been an area of focus for the past two seasons with a few different options reviewed due to injuries and scheduling of fixtures [New Zealand tour]. The fact is cementing this axis with the right blend is critical, we all know this, therefore 'mixing' things up in the run outs leading up to this tournament has been, and remains, essential. The introduction of Jonathan Joseph has firmly placed one name in the middle and I believe that Brad Barritt's defensive prowess and consistent performances will place him in the front seat for a second place however heading into August two other squad places remain open.
The noises on the grapevine are that Billy Twelvetress and Kyle Eastmond will be the two released during the next squad cut leaving behind Luther Burrell, Henry Slade and Sam Burgess to wrestle it out. Twelvetrees' consistency has been a latent problem for both club and country and the diminutive stature of Eastmond, especially in comparison to Burgess, is likely to have played some part in that decision when you focus on who England will be facing in the forthcoming RWC.
With these decisions likely and the reported news that the 10/12/13 axis for the forthcoming QBE fixture against France will be Cipriani, Burgess and Slade, the middle of the park will be an area of great interest. Without question Burgess will have the most pressure and indeed expectation on his shoulders. The differences of opinion surrounding his consideration at centre have been marked and the spotlight on him will shine extremely brightly come 15th August. Will this worry Burgess? In a word 'No'. Since the Bath man first set foot on English soil his every move has been scrutinised to the nth degree and the lens focused on him is a critical one, increasingly so when he has 12 on his back. If you ask any of the coaches or players at Bath Rugby what impresses them most about Burgess, aside from his physical attributes, they'll immediately tell you it is his character and his ability to learn. The hours of training since entering the England camp will count for a lot, absorbing information, plays and ideas. Prior performances in the centre were earlier on in Burgess' transition, when his decision making and understanding regarding all areas of the game was a little rusty and as an athlete and a footballer Burgess is no slouch therefore improvement should be obvious in terms of carrying into contact, decisions in terms of offloading and running the right lines at the right times. There is no question about the fact that this QBE will be the acid test in terms of his comfort with Union and ability to pull the strings required at the heart of England's all court attack.
From the man in the 10 jersey we will need to see an all round game, one that illustrates phenomenal game management, takes the ball flat to the line and distributes with excellence and precision. If he does that then he will bring the best out of those outside of him, in the manner that George Ford does, and allow Burgess and Slade to flourish. Gone are the days when we would need to worry about Cipriani showing too much flair instead, on the pitch at least, he has a sensible head on his shoulders and the understanding of when to turn it on and when to manage territory. The reality, of course, is that both Owen Farrell and George Ford are firmly ahead of him in the pecking order however we all know that one injury can open a door for any member of this wider squad and individuals must show to us and to the management that they are ready to step up if required. This will also be the case for Henry Slade, the 13 shirt has Jonathan Joseph's name on it and has done so since he blasted onto the scene however England need to have injury options that can deliver. Slade may not have a wealth international experience however to date he hasn't ever crumbled under the pressure and instead he makes top flight rugby look effortless and has the decision making ability required to excel.
The blend of these three players has the potential to excite, if Burgess takes his game to the a new level in the middle and delivers a combination of physical carries, effortless offloads and defensive solidity then he'll state his case strongly to take one of the two remaining centre places on offer. Danny Cipriani's task will be to continue to be a thorn on both Farrell and Ford's sides, pushing them with his output and Henry Slade must relish the occasion and state his personal worth firmly and with conviction. Personally I'm looking forward to seeing the collective and individual outputs of this combination if it is confirmed for the forthcoming fixture.