Rugby league convert Sam Burgess will start at outside centre for England’s pivotal Rugby World Cup match against Wales on Saturday (Sunday AEST) at Twickenham.
A chest injury to Bath teammate Jonathan Joseph has brought the 26-year-old – who has played just 112 minutes of Test rugby – into a revamped England midfield alongside centre Brad Barritt.
In coach Stuart Lancaster’s side named on Thursday, Owen Farrell will start at fly-half in place of demoted George Ford.
In another change to the XV that beat Fiji 35-11, No.8 Billy Vunipola – who like Burgess and Farrell impressed off the bench against the Pacific islanders – will start in place of Ben Morgan, out with a knee injury.
The decision to bench Ford is arguably even more controversial than Burgess’s inclusion given the Bath playmaker had been England’s first-choice No.10 for almost a year.
In selecting Burgess alongside Barritt, Lancaster has opted for his 14th different midfield combination since taking charge in 2012.
The trio of Farrell-Burgess-Barritt is the most powerful midfield three available to Lancaster, with England expecting a bruising gainline contest against the Welsh.
With Burgess and Vunipola starting, Alex Goode comes on to the bench to provide cover at fullback and fly-half, with veteran James Haskell a back-row replacement.
Former England fly-half Toby Ford warned the decision to relegate Ford to the bench could leave the 22-year-old “pretty devastated” as he has “been dropped when he hasn’t actually played that badly”.
Burgess, man of the match in South Sydney’s NRL grand final win last October, has been a union player for just 10 months, mostly deployed as a back-rower by Bath.
He has made one start in three Test appearances and doubts remain about how he will fare against a Wales backline set to include British and Irish Lions centre Jamie Roberts.
England’s plan appears to be to wear Wales down and then use their strength in depth off the bench, including Ford, in the final quarter – a strategy that had worked well in their bonus-point win over Fiji.
“We have a lot of respect for the Wales coaching team and their players,” said Lancaster.
“I am sure it will be some occasion on Saturday evening.
“The support at Twickenham last week was incredible with the crowd really getting behind us and will need them again this week to lift the players against a tough Wales team.”
Wales, who beat Uruguay 54-9 in their World Cup opener in the ‘Pool of Death’ also featuring Australia, are set to name their side later on Thursday to face England.
Mike Brown; Anthony Watson, Brad Barritt, Sam Burgess, Jonny May; Owen Farrell, Ben Youngs; Billy Vunipola, Chris Robshaw (capt), Tom Wood; Courtney Lawes, Geoff Parling; Dan Cole, Tom Youngs, Joe Marler. Res: Rob Webber, Mako Vunipola, Kieran Brookes, Joe Launchbury, James Haskell, Richard Wigglesworth, George Ford, Alex Goode.