The omens approaching Wales’ team hotel yesterday weren’t promising.
‘No parking. No turning,’ said the first sign. ‘No public right of way. Stay on the footpath. No cycling. Keep dogs on the lead. No fouling. No fishing. No access after sunset,’ added another.
The team’s media manager was to take up the theme later: “No questions in English please,” he ordered.
Thankfully, that request was directed at a Welsh TV crew rather than the greater gathering, but by then Rob Howley had already played the habitual game of cat and mouse with the media that has one over-riding rule: No information, or as little as possible.
Still, there was enough to discuss.
For weeks now, Pool A has been dominated by the growing number of players dropping out of the Welsh ranks. Yesterday, the focus swung entirely towards those men drafted in to Stuart Lancaster’s side for the clash with their neighbours on Saturday.
One English paper described the England coach’s decision to opt for Owen Farrell over George Ford at 10 as the biggest of his England tenure, but even that was drowned out by the hubbub arising from the elevation into the midfield of Sam Burgess to counter a big and powerful Welsh back line.
The former rugby league star has been a magnet for column inches ever since switching from the 13-man code and the South Sydney Rabbitohs 10 months ago and, with Farrell and Brad Barritt also to be drafted in for the Welsh game, Lancaster is looking to fight beef with beef.
“I was fortunate enough that Andy Farrell introduced Sam (when they were both coaches with the Lions) back in 2013 in Australia,” said Howley. “He is an imposing figure. I was certainly impressed with his game when he played with (Henry) Slade against France (last month).
“His ability to run the hard lines and having that creative edge on the outside of him makes it that bit more difficult from a defensive perspective. It is important when you play against players like Sam or Jamie (Roberts) or Ma’a Nonu that you close down their space.”
Burgess and Barritt, the 13th centre combination of Lancaster’s reign, will be starting a Test match together for the first time at Twickenham this weekend. It is an incredible state of affairs and one that begs the question as to what England were thinking in the months leading up to this.
Howley was never likely to say as much, but he touched on the importance of familiarity between players operating in the same vicinity when talking at length about whether coaches are better served backing players or using a horses-for-courses approach.
“With the speed of the modern international game now it is about that moment where you know how to react to that player on the inside because you have run those lines so often in training and playing. There is no substitute for playing in those big games.”
Which brings us to Farrell.
A member of the Lions touring party to Australia two years ago, the Saracens player had last season been overtaken by Ford. Now it seems all bets are off again as Lancaster shuffles his deck mid-World Cup.
“Having watched both and coached one of them on the Lions, George Ford has been pretty immense for England over the last 12 months and (with) his ability to get ball in hand and get the best out of the back line,” said Howley.
“Owen is great with ball in hand, his kicking game is very good and he likes those pressure games as well. It’s nice to have a choice between those two and I’m sure Stuart Lancaster is going to get that choice right.”
Wales have less scope for switches, with four players already called up from the standby list due to injuries and they have received special dispensation to call up a new prop up to 24 hours before this encounter rather than 48 hours as is normally the case.
That course of action will only be required if both Samson Lee and Paul James fail to make the 23 as Wales would then be left with just three props rather than the required four. However, full-back Liam Williams and lock Alun Wyn Jones did train fully yesterday and are “ready to go”.
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