Over the last six months or more I have been pleasantly surprised by the optimism of so many of my customers. Virtually to a man they have predicted that England will at least reach the semi-finals of this year’s Rugby World Cup and probably half think we will become World champions again.
I have thought for many months that there are two problems with the England squad which suggest to me that such optimism is heartwarming but a bit misplaced.
Having followed the World Cup since 1987 I have noticed that time and time again world champions win with a settled side. Their players have played together dozens and dozens of times. Have a look at the England team that won us the World Cup in 2003 for example. Key units like front rows and back threes have been decided on months, if not years, in advance and players know each other’s game and the team strategies inside out.
Whilst we have an excellent squad now, and I think we pretty much know the best two players in each position, injuries to so many players have prevented that essential continuity happening and we have left it rather too late for the best combinations to gell.
And boy have we had too many injuries to too many key players. Besides Tuilagi there is Wilson, Cole, Launchbury, Parling, Lawes, Morgan, Woods, the Vunipola brothers, Farrell, Barritt, Nowell and Brown who between them must have had close to three years off injured in the last twelve months. Such a spate of injuries to so many frontline players makes it so much more difficult for the coach to play his first choices together and find out what works and the extent of these injuries makes me wonder how people can be so optimistic.
And secondly there is the problem of who to pair at centre which for me was the final piece of the jigsaw puzzle that needed putting in place.
Before this week’s announcement that Manu Tuilagi won’t be going to this year’s World Cup, I thought that only the pairing of he and Jonathan Joseph would give us a realistic chance of progressing all the way to the Final. Now, I have to say that the options available to partner Joseph just don’t look anywhere near as attractive. Or that the selectors have to throw caution to the wind and try and blood someone new to the position which I sincerely hope they do give serious consideration to.
Now don’t get me wrong we do have several centres who can do a job.
The man in possession, Luther Burrell was for me the weak link in England’s backline during this year’s Six Nations and obviously still has much to learn but he has the heart of a lion, gives 100% and has never really let the side down.
Brad Barritt can fit back in and do the job he does better than any other centre in England but his being the link between George Ford and Joseph rather compromises England’s attacking options. Being as hard as nails is a great plus but we need guile and out of the box vision to bring our back three and Joseph into the game more.
If Exeter had made it through to the play-offs Henry Slade would have had at least two more games to impress the selectors but now his chances are more limited. He would however be my outside bet for the inside centre birth and may well get selected as fly half ahead of Stephen Myler which again I would prefer and that would give the selectors the option to try him there but time is against him.
Billy Twelvetrees has definitely had his moments in an England shirt and I am pretty sure he will be in the final squad but he was never going to be my first choice due to his inconsistency.
And then it gets a bit darker.
If I was a betting man I would put money on Owen Farrell starting at inside centre for the first match of the World Cup. I just cannot get out of my head the thought that having your dad as one of the selectors really does influence selection. Think first amongst equals rather than favouritism.
Until injured I watched him play in most, if not all of his matches for England and could not believe how much better George Ford was when he got his chance. When I saw him at centre he did a decent job but his overall lack of vision in both positions makes me think that at best he should be second choice and hopefully make his mark from the bench.
He is still young, has been on a very steep learning curve and should become world class by the next world cup but with his lack of match practice through injury this year and his limitations I really don’t think he is the solution.
Others have talked about Kyle Eastmond. He is as gifted as pretty much anyone qualified to play for England and at club level plays between Ford and Joseph, but his newness to Union still shows and being roughly the same size as Ford you can see why many worry if someone like Jamie Roberts decided to target either of them. I think I hold a minority view and that he should be persevered with.
I have also noted that George Ford barely missed a tackle all 6 Nations and having read pretty much every match report concerning Bath this season and I can’t remember anyone saying the Ford/Eastmond pairing weakened the side defensively. but then my memory is not my strong point.
So, of all the regular inside centres Eastmond would have been my first choice but the chances of that happening at this year’s World Cup are near to non-existent.
Sam Burgess is a non-starter as he has started playing club rugby at flanker and has made much more of a success of that position than he did at centre by all accounts. Wonderful talent that he is, this World Cup has come round too soon and when the present England Captain plays on one flank and Lancaster’s other golden boy is pencilled in for the other flank the chances recede into the far distance.
Moreover someone like James Haskell is a much better bet on the bench as he can and has the experience of covering all three back row positions.
Then finally there is a chance that Danny Cipriani will be given the opportunity to play No.12 and rise to the occasion. He has the talent, not a little experience and I suspect that his personality is such that if he were entrusted with a new role as a centre he would grab it with both hands. He must realise that George Ford is likely to keep him out of the fly half spot for the foreseeable future. How important a second receiver is in the selectors’ plans I know not but Cipriani would be my left field choice.
And there is a distinct possibility that, excluding injuries, Ford, Cipriani, Farrell and Slade will be picked for the final squad, ostensibly as fly halves, with Barritt, Burrell, Twelvetrees and Joseph as the centres.
I suspect we will be none the wiser as to whether the selectors will play safe for some time to come.
There is a squad of up to 50 England players to be announced this Wednesday, 20th May for training purposes only and I would be staggered if any of the names mentioned here were excluded unless they were injured.
Whether we win the World Cup this year or not, in four years not only will we still have the likes of Ford and Farrell still in their prime, but also a certain Manu Tuilagi who hopefully will also be in the mix and still in his prime.