The pressures on England at this World Cup can hardly be over-egged. Their status as hosts, as founding fathers of the game, and as the country with both the greatest playing resources and finances, guaranteed a level of scrutiny and sense of expectation that was only heightened by their placement in Pool A alongside Wales and Australia.
The screws tightened even more ahead of tomorrow’s encounter with Wales at Twickenham and it was all of their own making this time, with head coach Stuart Lancaster opting to radically redesign his backline for the biggest game of his three-and-a-bit year tenure.
Yesterday’s team announcement simply confirmed what had become public knowledge on Wednesday. In came Owen Farrell for George Ford at 10, Sam Burgess at 12, with Brad Barritt switching to 13 in Jonathan Joseph’s absence.
The other change is at number eight where Billy Vunipola replaces the injured Ben Morgan.
It is tantamount to a director rewriting his script as the cameras are rolling and Lancaster even admitted that he contemplated further changes at scrum-half but decided that Richard Wigglesworth for Ben Youngs would be one snip too far.
Ballsy, or bonkers?
“If we win the game it will be judged a success, if we lose… the selection is already being questioned,” Lancaster laughed.
“It comes down to the next two games. I understand the consequences, I understand the stakes. It’s a World Cup. I’m in charge and it’s a difficult pool.”
Lancaster found himself at one point having to explain how the selection process works after the whiff of suspected nepotism was brought up in the wake of his decision to opt for the son of a current England assistant (Andy Farrell) over a former one (Mike Ford).
He denied it is a gamble or a sign of panic.
How could it be a gamble, he asked, when he was drafting in a player who was man of the match in last season’s Premiership final for Saracens, someone with over 30 England caps and a lifetime of British and Irish Lions reunion dinners ahead of him?
The coach spoke at length about the individual abilities of Farrell, Burgess and Barritt, but it is the collective that concerns above all else. Ford had injected vision into England’s back play. Where will England find the creative spark to light up Twickers with that 10-12-13 axis?
“People are trying to say that we can’t play attacking rugby (with Farrell at 10) and I can’t see that,” said the coach.
“We scored 14 tries in the Six Nations (in 2014). It was the second highest total we had ever scored and he was in charge of the back line.”
Rewind four years and this all seems very familiar given Declan Kidney’s failure to decide between the merits of Ronan O’Gara and Jonathan Sexton before, during, and even after the 2011 World Cup and it is impossible to see how such indecision helps.
Jonny Wilkinson has spoken before of the need to stick with a 10, to build up an aura around him, especially during a tournament like this where momentum can be key.
Lancaster neglected to explain his thoughts on the role come Saturday night and beyond. The suspicion is that Ford was knocked about a bit too much by the Fijians last Friday and that the more physical Farrell is also a slightly more secure kicker.
Perhaps the most pertinent criticism of Lancaster was the suggestion he had been scarred by England’s Six Nations loss in Cardiff in 2013, that he was showing Wales too much respect by picking a team to play the game on their terms. One that favours bish and bosh over swish.
“There was obviously a scar, [there is] in any game you lose. The consequences of the game were quite disappointing, to put it mildly, but the following year we played them at home at Twickenham and beat them and then we played them at the Millennium and beat them.
“I look along our team from one to 23 and I don’t see any weaknesses. I see players in form, I see competition in every position, but you have to be respectful of what they have achieved. Warren Gatland has won Premiership titles, coached the Lions, and Wales are at their best in this position.” Are England?
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