Patrick McKendry

Patrick McKendry is a rugby writer for the Herald.

Rugby: England look to trio of hitmen

Few New Zealand rugby supporters will enjoy casting their minds back to the events at Twickenham of December 2 last year, when England first strangled and then romped their way to a shock 38-21 victory over the All Blacks.

The performance of powerhouse centre Manu Tuilagi, who scored two converted tries and set up two others, may have eased the pain for some; it was a coming-of-age statement, a demonstration of intent from a then 21-year-old with a bright future.

He made Dan Carter look like a run-of-the-mill player when flattening him with a fend and did the same to Kieran Read when intercepting the No8's pass to sprint away, and then brazenly jog, for a try.

Unfortunately for England, however, Tuilagi won't be available next weekend because of a chest injury but there are others in contention who have broken the mould and look to play with a freedom and skill not always associated with teams from rugby's HQ.

Three players worth watching are lock Courtney Lawes, wing Marland Yarde and fullback Mike Brown.

All three have an X-factor desperately needed by England who must strive to find the recipe which worked so well last year.

As they showed, Steve Hansen's men can be vulnerable if their open, attacking game is used against them.

For some, Lawes will be best known for his actions during the 2011 World Cup, when a reckless knee was applied to Argentine Mario Ledesma's head in Dunedin. It was an ugly act for which he was banned for two weeks.

The 2.01m Northampton lock, who has won 23 caps since making his debut in 2009, doesn't subscribe to the theory that he is England's "enforcer".

It would be a waste of talent if he was, for he is a tall, rangy second rower with a skill set not always associated with such a big man.

"I don't consider myself a cheap-shot player," the 24-year-old told England's Guardian newspaper recently. "I never throw punches, stamp, or anything like that. I may have made a late tackle depending on whose side you are on.

"These are marginal things. Most of the time, I can't stop anyway. I just do my thing. I'm not an enforcer but I like to make tackles, carry ball and get over the gain line.

"When you think about enforcers, you think about guys like [South Africa's Bakkies] Botha - big, physical guys who are very much on the edge with referees."

Yarde, a 21-year-old wing at the start of his career, was unavailable for England's test against Argentina overnight due to a hip injury but he is likely to be on the scene for a while.

The St Lucia-born player, who emigrated to England at the age of nine, made his mark for his new country in their away test against Argentina in June - scoring two tries - and made his Twickenham debut in England's 20-13 win over Australia a week ago.

Even 10 years ago, he knew little of rugby, preferring cricket and athletics. However, watching England's victory over Australia in the 2003 World Cup final changed all that.

"To be honest, I didn't even know who Jonny Wilkinson was, or any of the players," he told English media. "It was just the sport, enjoying the whole atmosphere and how the sport was played. I found it was really exciting. That really sparked my vision to want to be part of this sport and play."

Yarde, a London Irish player, has speed and elusiveness but is still developing.

Already the full package for England is 28-year-old fullback Mike Brown, a Cory Jane or Ben Smith-type figure who punches way above his weight.

It was an analogy taken up by team-mate Owen Farrell after England's victory over Australia. Think Jane or Smith with the scrappiness of England's New Zealand-born hooker Dylan Hartley.

"He's a proper fighter. Like a dog let off a lead, he'll go and fight to get that ball back," Farrell said.

Harlequins player Brown caused difficulties on the left wing against the All Blacks last year.

As England seek to reach the heights that victory represented - and they haven't done so since - coach Stuart Lancaster will hope to have his talented trio available to help him cause a few more problems on Sunday.

- APNZ

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