England’s healed stars return bringing selection dilemmas
Forgetting the performances for one moment, phase one of England’s Six Nations championship is successfully complete. Difficult wins in troublesome matches away in Edinburgh and Rome have created momentum and also given English rugby the injection of confidence it so dearly needed.
Now ahead of Wales, Stuart Lancaster has a chance to evaluate how his new team has fared so far, and if possible make amendments to what was an unchanged squad in Italy last week. The interim Head Coach first spoke about this time to reassess back at the announcement of Chris Robshaw’s captaincy, principally down to the fact that many stars are now fit again having missed the first two rounds, including Courtney Lawes, Toby Flood and Manu Tuilagi.
By coincidence, the players returning play in positions where England at the moment are not quite firing on all cylinders. Lawes has been a mainstay of the England side since his first start against Australia in June 2010, but returns from injury to find the in-form Saracen Mouritz Botha in his place. Regularly used by Northampton Saints at blindside flanker, as recently as last weekend against Gloucester, replacing Botha would seem wrong given how well he has performed. Tom Croft has come under heavy criticism in recent weeks for his lack of physicality, not all of it fair, but having both Botha and Lawes in the pack would give them a greater amount of aggression, something that they have lacked in the first two rounds. Tom Wood, the man believed to be Lancaster’s initial choice as captain, remains sidelined indefinitely.
Away from the pack, England also have the Leicester duo of Toby Flood and Manu Tuilagi available again. Selection in this area has proved difficult for some time, but based on the first two matches, whilst Owen Farrell and Brad Barritt have performed well, England’s attack has not. It is worth remembering at this point that Charlie Hodgson’s reinstatement to the national side came on the back of all three of England’s fly-halves from the Rugby World Cup being unavailable.
Throwing in Owen Farrell for his debut at 10 would have been a gamble even too great for this experimental England. But after 160 minutes in an England shirt, Farrell has shown little to be concerned about. He seemed to handle playing at this level remarkably well in the baying pit of Murrayfield and horrendous conditions of Rome, enough to make him indispensable. His partner in the centre, Brad Barritt, has performed brilliantly in defence. Which leaves Hodgson.
Stuart Lancaster’s preference for two playmakers has so far with regards to England’s attack only produced two charged down tries. He may continue to use it, but with Flood and Farrell as the 10 and 12 combination. Flood has not started at fly-half since England played Georgia in Dunedin six matches ago. Moving Farrell to 10 would mean shifting Barritt infield, to a position where greater handling is required which happens to be an area where he is underrated. By doing this, England can bring in that raw pace at outside centre that they are currently missing.
For now that man is Manu Tuilagi. England have missed the X Factor he brings to that channel, and if they can put him in positions where he is collecting offloads from Barritt and exploding past the first tackler, then David Strettle and Chris Ashton will be more involved. Looking at the immediate future, Tuilagi’s physicality alongside Barritt would also strengthen the midfield against the powerful duo of Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies in two weeks time. Elsewhere, Jonathan Joseph caught the eye again on his return from injury for London Irish against Harlequins with one of the tries of the season last Saturday. This Six Nations has just come too early for him, but his inclusion on the summer tour to South Africa is essential.
The inclusion of either Flood, Tuilagi, or both, plus the potential inclusion of Ben Morgan and Lee Dickson after two bright performances from the bench, would represent a substantial change to England’s teamsheet from Rome. Going forward, the results are arguably not important. England’s objective from the first two games was to pick up at least one victory, which they have comfortably surpassed. From now onwards, against established sides in Wales, France and Ireland who will be favourites in all three matches, what matters are the performances. That includes improving their philosophy at the breakdown, and showing more attacking intent. By bringing in Tuilagi and moving Farrell, England will have more gunpowder in their barrel.
by Ben Coles