England v Barbarians, Twickenham, May 27
Lancaster keeping his options open
May 25, 2012
Charlie Hodgson will return to the England No.10 shirt for Sunday's clash with the Barbarians © Getty Images
England boss Stuart Lancaster has thrown down the gauntlet to fly-half Charlie Hodgson ahead of Sunday's clash with the Barbarians at Twickenham.
Hodgson's Saracens team-mate Owen Farrell ended this year's Six Nations in ownership of the England No.10 shirt having held off the challenge of Hodgson and Leicester's Toby Flood but Lancaster insists no-one is guaranteed to be the first-choice fly-half for next month's three-Test series against South Africa.
Lancaster has decided to move Farrell back to inside centre and start Hodgson at fly-half in Sunday's non-cap game against the Barbarians. Farrell is expected to get some game-time in the pivotal role during the second-half but Lancaster's move indicates a desire to keep his three fly-halves competitive.
England expect Flood to be fit to travel with the squad after he was named on the bench for Leicester's Aviva Premiership final against Harlequins tomorrow. "This is an opportunity for Charlie to put a marker down but there is an opportunity for Owen to move to fly-half in the second half," Lancaster said.
"It is a likely scenario that Owen will be seen in that 10 role. He finished the Six Nations in that position. It is up to the others to prove they should be wearing it. They all offer different things. Charlie can play flat to the line, Toby engages defenders and brings huge experience and Owen has a good core skill set and his temperament is excellent.
"Charlie had one of his most enjoyable seasons with Saracens, he loved being involved with England in the Six Nations and he is desperate to start for England in South Africa. I want to fuel that motivation. If you define the squad early, you potentially shut the door on a lot of players. I will make clear when I meet the players where I see them in the pecking order - but I am open minded."
Hodgson will be 34 by the time England host the World Cup in 2015, which leaves him at the upper end of the age bracket for selection. But whether Hodgson remains in the England set-up for the next three years or not, Lancaster highlighted the value of his role in the building of that World Cup team.
Saracens recruited Hodgson last year to help bring on young players like Farrell - and he is performing the same role for England. "There is a group of players I have spoken to - Lee Mears, Tom Palmer, Charlie - who are hugely important in that group at the moment," Lancaster said. "I was talking to Freddie Burns about his experience this week and he said it was unbelievable to learn from Charlie Hodgson. His impact on players like Freddie and Owen Farrell is immeasurable. I won't be drawing a line under his England career."
Lancaster has kept experimentation to a minimum for the Barbarians game, with his intention to use the fixture as a genuine warm-up for the five-match three-Test tour of South Africa. Wasps wing Christian Wade, Bath flanker Carl Fearns and Exeter loose-forward Tom Johnson are the only uncapped players in a strong England outfit.
Wade has been selected ahead of David Strettle to make his first senior England appearance in Sunday's game after scoring nine tries in 15 Aviva Premiership games for Wasps.
"He has been hugely impressive with his try-scoring ability, his ability to break defences up and there is a buzz every time he gets the ball," Lancaster said. "He did the same in training. David Strettle has played a lot of rugby this season. He is fit but this will give Christian his opportunity on the left wing."
Lancaster is without his 18-strong Leicester and Harlequins contingent, who meet in the Premiership final on Saturday. The knock-on effect of Hodgson's return at fly-half is that Brad Barritt shifts to outside centre, although Jonathan Joseph is set to get a run there in the second half. Lee Dickson continues at scrum-half with full-back Ben Foden and wing Chris Ashton completing England's near full-strength back division.
Up front, Dylan Hartley starts at hooker in his first game back after serving an eight-week ban for biting Stephen Ferris in England's Six Nations victory over Ireland in March. Hartley will be propped by Matt Stevens and Paul Doran-Jones, while Mouritz Botha and Tom Palmer pack down in the second row and Phil Dowson captains the side from No.8.
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