Leicester Tigers’ new fly-half Freddie Burns proved all the doubters wrong on Saturday with a simply outstanding performance for England against the All Blacks.
A weakened England side lost 20-15 at Eden Park but defied all expectations to run a strong New Zealand squad all the way.
England led the match into the final quarter off the back of Burns’ kicking, eventually losing to a late Conrad Smith try in the corner.
The best news for both club and country is that on Saturday’s evidence Burns might just be Sir Ian McGeechan’s fabled “test match animal.”
A man who can raise himself for the big occasion and deliver in style.
The tales of Burns’ demise during the last six months at Gloucester have been exaggerated. Yes he lost form but he has spent most of his career playing behind a pack getting stuffed backwards week in and week out.
On Saturday, playing against the best team in the world, a side which went unbeaten in 2014, he was cool and calm, striking his kicks from around the field with assured confidence to finish with a 100 percent record and keep his side in the fixture.
However, not to get carried away, Burns will almost certainly get dropped this weekend with the return of Owen Farrell who was not available to play having taken part in the Premiership final. You would imagine the best Burns can hope for is a place on the bench. His performance certainly deserves it at the very least.
Happily for Leicester, a scenario is emerging where in the next 18 months there could be two established international fly-halves fighting it out for the ten jersey at the club.
This season Owen Williams has come on leaps and bounds, claiming the fly-half role from Toby Flood. Before he shipped a four game ban he was selected to play in the Wales trial game and his stock is rising all the time.
At the moment Burns is still the third or fourth choice England fly-half behind Farrell, George Ford and possibly Stephen Myler but what a great position that is for Stuart Lancaster to be in.
Probably the best player on the field on Saturday was Leicester’s Samoan-born wrecking ball Manu Tuilagi.
The Tigers centre was at his destructive best with ball in hand, making the most yards out of anyone on the field.
Tuilagi seemed to gel beautifully with Bath’s Kyle Eastmond who time and time again managed to release the centre with a delayed pass.
Lancaster is facing another selection headache in the centre with the return of former Tiger Billy Twelvetrees, Luther Burrell and Brad Barritt. The abundance of centre options has led to the suggestion that Tuilagi should be played on the wing but I fear it would be a terrible blunting of England’s most dangerous weapon.
Tuilagi proved he can be a great threat on the wing, as seen galloping down the whitewash on Saturday as England broke downfield. But he is not the fastest player in the side and more importantly he needs the ball in his hands as much as possible because every time he received the pill on Saturday he got over the gainline and got England moving forward.
The other two Tigers on the pitch did themselves proud as well.
Geoff Parling, who has missed most of the season through injury, made a triumphant return to international rugby, leading the lineout like the established professional he is and providing a high work-rate around the park.
Sadly, like Burns and his clubmate Ben Youngs, who had a solid if not outstanding match, Parling is likely to get demoted to the bench as the cavalry arrive.
Northampton’s Courtney Lawes is as good a second row as there is in the world right now and you would expect him to walk right into the side.
The other lock, Joe Launchbury, is a favourite of Lancaster and is unlikely to be dropped after another decent showing at the weekend.
Youngs was only elevated to the England starting XV because of the late withdrawal of Danny Care who looks certain to reclaim the nine shirt if fit.
Whoever is picked, England will be stronger for the second of the three-test series and having the likes of Parling, Youngs and Burns on the bench could tip a close match in England’s favour.
It was a glorious effort from England on Saturday. They were just minutes away from making history but Lancaster has made it very clear that close is not good enough.
On Saturday they go to Dunedin to level the series to leave everything to play for.
Back on home soil Leicester have been given a daunting draw for the inaugural European Rugby Champions Cup drawing Heineken Cup champions Toulon, Ulster and Scarlets in Pool Three.