To The Panic Stations!

Have England lost their nerve? England are going to take on Wales in their almost-knockout pool game this weekend with a midfield consisting of Owen Farrell, Sam Burgess and Brad Barritt. In that order. So that’s Barritt at 13 then. 

With Billy Vunipola also coming into the team it’s a whopping four changes from the team which performed pretty modestly against Fiji. Vunipola at least looked impressive off the bench (and Ben Morgan might be a smidgen injured) as did Slammin’ but Barritt was anonymous – in his favoured position.

Does it constitute a small bit of panic in the ranks? Stuart Barnes’ considered opinion was that a change in mindset rather than personnel was required, and that any move away from Ford at this stage opened the possibility of England crashing out. It appears a frankly remarkable move to about-turn on the Bath midfield axis which has driven England’s best performances over the last 12 months. Has George Ford’s stock really plummeted on the back of one faintly ponderous performance behind Ben Youngs’ sleepy service? And just what is it that the more mechanical Owen Farrell can really do so much better?
England scored 18 tries in the Six Nations with the Ford-Burrell-Joseph midfield. Burrell has been left at home, and of course Joseph’s injury denies England their best back. But it’s as if his absence has caused the coaches to say ‘well sod this anyway. Passing the ball around was hard enough with Joseph in the team, now we’ve no hope. Let’s switch to kick and bosh instead’. Henry Slade, meanwhile, holds tackle bags and Cipriani is at home.

It looks suspiciously like Lancaster has been sucked into the old classic that world cups require ‘cup rugby’, and that cup rugby mostly involves very little rugby at all. It’s a bit early to be tightening up to such a degree.

Most of all, though, it looks like a selection Wazza Gatland will be thrilled to see. Farrell at 10? Easy meat. Brad Barritt at 13? Dan Lydiate will line him up all day long. Surely the big Welsh oil tankers are better off being moved around? Certainly Sam Burgess has a bit about him and his his offloading game will have to be policed closely, but all told the number of threats is reduced. Anthony Watson? His best chance of getting the ball is from Welsh kicks. 

We had England down to win this match. But now we’re not so sure. Wales are a bit injured but if they can get something approaching parity in the scrums and lineouts – where England aren’t any great shakes either – and if Alun-Wyn Jones is fit enough, they might just edge this one. 

Either way, a titanic battle awaits, even if it won’t be all that pretty. Altogether now – Ooooooooooooooohhhhhh!!

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  1. SportingBench

     /  September 24, 2015

    I think it is interesting that the consensus is that England were poor against Fiji. Yet it is cup rugby and they got the 5 points while consensus says Oz played impressively yesterday against a tired Fiji but failed to get the bonus.
    I think the media reaction has forced a panicked Lancaster to go to his comfort zone but the big problem here is that there is no point in playing Ford anyway if your centres are Burgess and Barritt. Neither of those two are able to use his clever moves and passing range in the correct way, good players though they are. So once they are your centres then the Farrell selection makes sense. Particularly as his goal kicking is better than Ford’s. The question this begs is why is Slade is in the squad if he isn’t trusted and what the hell is Burrell doing at home?
    I could see England winning this particularly if AWJ and Samson are really fully fit but I think it is more likely now, based on the optimistic noises on the injury front coming out of Wales that they will be better at Warrenball, beat England but then lose to Australia and possibly a rested Fiji. With Oz topping the Pool and England limping through to a bosh up with SA.

    • The outcome (five points) may have been good but the performance wasn’t.

      Agree with you on Slade and Burrell. All the more reason to ask if they’ve lost their nerve a bit.

    • L.P.O.

       /  September 28, 2015

      Come on, lads: England only got 4 points against Fiji, as did Australia… relevant information when making that much slated decision to spurn a difficult kick to go for the win instead of a draw. Wales, in theory, at least, could get a BP at home against the Fijians, so a draw could have seen England hand Wales an advantage in the Group of Death (TM).

      That said, Fiji could well upset the taffy festivities anyway… Great competition so far.

      • L.P.O.

         /  September 29, 2015

        Oops… disregard… forgot their penalty try. Ah well… otherwise a sound theory.

  2. If I were Gatland I’d target the brat Farrell. Put him under extreme pressure and with a bit of luck he could do a Dylan Hartley, trying to prove his macho credentials. Bring it on!!!

    • On the flip side, if I were Lancaster I’d target Wales’ brats Williams and Phillips.

        • Wow, Gats didn’t pick Phillips even on the bench, bit of a surprise!

          • SportingBench

             /  September 24, 2015

            To be fair to Gatland, he is generally good at ignoring a player’s reputation in selection and focusing only on the here and now. Philips has been pretty rubbish for 2 years now

          • D6W

             /  September 24, 2015

            Phillips is only in squad due to injury, so Gatland must think he is past his sell-by date.

          • I’m a bit surprised too. I thought he might even start! I had a thought that in the absence of his best scrummie, Wazza might opt for experience. Phillips doesn’t strike me as someone you’d pick as third choice, I just don’t see him as the sort who’d be a great tourist if he wasn’t involved in the matches. That’s only a hunch though, I stand to be corrected.

  3. Considering that Wales are (a) looking for special dispensation to call up a prop on short notice and (b) in mildly warm water for training with players outside their 31 (Gats never misses a trick, does he?) and (c) held together with wool sheared from newborn lambs, it makes it a lot harder to call.

    In England’s favour, there’s the fact that they’re reverting to type (and Andy Farrell is keeping his wee lad happy). Unfussy. Set piece. Bosh. Kick goals. Rinse, lather, repeat. I actually think they’d be happy to have Lydiate lining up Barritt all day long, if it meant that it didn’t have Warburic haring down on them (ref: Pooper vs NZ, Fiji, Warburic vs England 2013).

    On the flip side, you have Warrenball. The cliché is you can prepare for it all you want, but it’s still bloody effective. Roberts and Williams (the latter in particular, he can tear up defenses as well as Joseph in my opinion) will be licking their lips at the collisions to come. The big question comes down to how much of Wales are fit enough to make it happen, and if Gatland doesn’t go with a Warburic back row, can Wales get enough ball to score tries?

    All in all, I reckon it’ll come down to whether England can contain Wales at the breakdown and whether Wales can go five minutes without an injury.

  4. It feels like madness. Losing some very composed attackers.

  5. Billy

     /  September 24, 2015

    I’m quite surprised at the reaction to this selection. As romantic as an expansive gameplan is, England (both against Fiji and in general) look better much better when they are direct. In particular their relatively immobile back row is not well suited to an expansive game. I believe Ford and Slade are far superior prospects and rugby players than Farrell, Burgess and Barritt but this selection was game plan oriented. If England play with too much width, Wales just need to select Tipuric and Warburton and England would come apart at ruck time. The other interesting aspect to the Burgess selections is the Roberts element; I believe he was partly selected to counteract Roberts off first phase – a vital part of Wales’ strategy.

    I would expect Wales to play with a lot of width now and the selection of their back row will be indicative here. Lydiate will be a defensive selection to counteract England’s directness. He will sit 15 yards from the ruck and smash runners. Tipuric would be the more offensive selection, indicating a willingness to play with a lot of width as they did when they humped them in Cardiff in 2013. I honestly believe Wales will lose if they play Lydiate but Tipuric gives them a fighting chance and should make for an enthralling tactical battle.

    • I think they’re at their best when they have a balance to their play. I think they look a much better team with Ford and Joesph than with Farrell and Barritt.

      Wales have selected Lydiate. I know Warburic would have been great to watch, but I can’t help thinking it’s just about the right call. Wales still have to go into this game with an ‘away team’ mentality, and I think Lydiate amassing 20+ tackles fits that bill.

      • Really the ford – Farrell selection is what it’s all about. Ford-bosher-eastmond would be dangerous i think and offer enough distribution for their good wings. Ford is a class player and it’s easy to sense a bit of bath-sarries, Farrell/lancaster-ford tension. But then, if you can’t show nepotism to your own, just who can you show it to like.

        Agree about the welsh back row. Wales will look to frustrate England and then put a big change in tempo when tipuric and others come on. That could be the winning of the game, but then England have the brilliant launchbury and ford to come on too. It’s hard to call and bonus points might be a help. If England and Wales max out their bonus points and aus lose to either of them-they’re gone.

        • SportingBench

           /  September 24, 2015

          Still reckon the problem with Ford is he might have no one to pass to when he comes on

          • Fair point-presumably to someone about to be smashed by Wales’ line speed. Maybe they’ll run those deeper bath patterns to get outside the edge and look for a blindside winger from depth? Another question for you-who is Goode going to come on for?

        • Billy

           /  September 24, 2015

          I’m not the biggest Farrell fan in the world but I think he’s getting a raw deal here. Ford is undoubtedly the better footballer but Farrell does bring better defence and goalkicking. He is the OH on the best team in the Prem (and the consummate cup rugby team). He was the best 10 on show when Sarries beat Bath (and Ford) in the Prem final too. He was also 10 for some of England’s best performances in recent years (NZ 2012, Ireland 2014 to name two). I do believe Ford will be the best 10 in the world in time but he can be guilty of playing too much rugby at times. Farrell can certainly not be accused of that.

      • Billy

         /  September 24, 2015

        On balance, given no Morgan on the bench for England, Tipuric has the potential to be more impactful from the bench than Haskell. I can’t understand why Charteris has been benched though as the English lineout can certainly be got at with Youngs throwing.

        I have a feeling when you say balanced and I say direct we mean the same thing.

        Whatever about Ford, I feel Joseph has been prematurely anointed. I’ve seen a lot of Joseph for Bath and he has been excellent – fast, elusive, strong – but I’ve seen very little in an England shirt to suggest he can do it at int’l level. I would say the same for Eastmond. Top level defences don’t give you the time and space make breaks the way the London Welsh’s of the world do. If they did, Keith Earls would be a world class 13.

        • BFBB

           /  September 24, 2015

          Here Billy lay of Keith Earls would ya?

        • I don’t rate him so highly, you make a fair defence and I thought your previous post was a good analysis of it too billy. Still, I’ll agree to disagree on eastmond, earls and England – unless they have something as yet unforeseen, England are signposting to wales that they are going 1 dimensional. But being predictable makes that gameplan all the harder. I think in twickenham England are good enough to put anyone away if they back themselves. I agree that would be better served with an open side (any openside!) at least on the bench, but I’m a robshaw fan and think they can do it with the men they have too. This selection suggests to me they don’t have the same confidence in them as I had.

  6. Hairy Naomh Mhuire

     /  September 24, 2015

    Lancaster really does look like the pressure is getting to him! Read a comment elsewhere comparing Farrell selection ahead of Ford to Woodward losing his nerve and picking Paul Grayson ahead of Wilkinson against the Bokke in RWC ’99! I agree with Billy that Wales have missed a trick by leaving Tipuric on the bench but just the thought of the good doctor running hard at the Bath blindside leads me to believe that the ‘Wales beat England who beat Australia who beat Wales’ scenario looks ever more compelling.

    • Love the Grayson comparison.

      That’s the scenario I had in my head until the Welsh players started dropping like flies. But it’s looking decidedly plausible again…

      • paddyo

         /  September 24, 2015

        And in which case why was Cheka saying “ah it’s not super rugby mate, we’re not interested in bonus points.” Couldn’t believe it. And vunipola claimed he knew nowt about them. Are they taking the piss like? I’d be taking serious umbrage if I were a welsh rugby player/supporter.

  7. toro toro

     /  September 24, 2015

    As a Chiefs fan, I’m disappointed not to see Slade come in for Joseph. But once they don’t do that, for whatever reason, I think this selection actually makes quite a bit of sense, for this specific game at least.

    One significant theme of the opening game was Fiji throwing Nadolo down Ford’s channel at every opportunity. He’s a very brave defender for a small guy, but it put him under significant pressure. And when England started trying to wheel the scrum by about 45 degrees to get Robshaw into that channel earlier to assist him (and start the ball slightly further away), it contributed to the serious problems they had in the set-piece. It’s also part of why Matawalu had that wide open space to gallop into and almost score (the other part is Marler scrummaging so crookedly that the Fijian 6 could simply reach forward and grab Wood to stop him disengaging).

    Now, remember that they’re playing Wales. And remember how all of Gatland’s teams, club and country, used to target Ronan O’Gara in defense; never more effectively than four years ago. And yes, David Wallace used to help him out etc., but that leaves things thinner elsewhere. It’s a fair assumption that Gatland would have fired Roberts and North at him at every opportunity.

    Now Farrell is a much better defender, but a much more limited distributor and runner. But that’s less of a drawback if you’re choosing a battering-ram midfield, rather than one designed to free Joseph. Farrell’s distribution is just fine for Burgess-Barritt. And it’s not as though Sladey could have just dropped in for Joseph and England kept the same gameplan – the one thing really laking from his game is raw pace.

    So they were changing the centres for this game anyway, in a way that made Ford’s skillset less valuable, and they had a legitimate worry that he would present a particular defensive liability in this match. I think it makes sense, with the proviso that I’d be surprised to see them do the same against Australia.

    • MarkP

       /  September 24, 2015

      That’s a fantastic analysis toro toro.

      I can only see Slade gaining an appearance on the bench at best against Uruguay.

    • I think I understand where you are coming from a bit, but it just reads to me as compounding one poor selection (barritt at 13), with another (Farrell at 10). You end up advocating bosh it against wales (they love that) , then faster and looser v Australia (they double love that). Maybe it’ll work, their wings might be good enough to do damage irrespective. And it is England in twickenham- hard to beat no matter who they put out.

      Look I think England have a potential rwc winning side in there, but these selections are characterised by fear and I’m not so sure they’ll help defensively, or that they will find it so easy to revert to a distribution game – i think it’ll put them so far back in their shell you’d need a kango to get them out. Predictable tackle zones=easily contested breakdown = turnover or penalty to wales for:off your feet, neck roll, sealing off.

  8. Easy to be wise after the fact; this is amazingly prescient in hindsight.

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