With various reports emerging today that Owen Farrell is set to start at 12 for England this weekend it makes me wonder, does Stuart Lancaster know something that we don’t?
Somehow I find it hard to believe that Lancaster is sticking to his selection mantra of picking players on form given Farrell’s performance last weekend. I find it perplexing that the same player who struggled to impose himself on either of the first two tests is set to receive yet another start for the Red Rose.
Now in fairness, Farrell has come in for a lot of unfair criticism recently as it would be a bit much to expect any player to perform to the best of their ability given so little game time so far this season. It is therefore not Farrell’s fault that he continues to be selected despite not looking match fit.
Unfortunately he looks a shadow of the player who was performing above expectation earlier this year during the Six Nations. What baffles me though is that if he’s unable to get back up to those standards why does Stuart Lancaster continue to select him when he clearly isn’t match fit.
You don’t see the All Blacks continuing to select Dan Carter at every given opportunity, even when fit, so why do England? This has led to the All Blacks having both Beauden Barrett and Aaron Cruden as viable back ups should Carter pick-up an injury whilst Colin Slade is still waiting in the background.
In contrast England have Farrell as first choice 10, whilst George Ford, supposedly the next man in line to the shirt only has a handful of caps to his name. Given the Autumn Internationals don’t actually impact on anything other than national pride as they moment in time, surely this was the perfect opportunity to give Ford the chance to demonstrate what he can do on the international stage.
At least then if he faltered England would still be left with time to look at other options. As it is though, Ford will now have to make do with a likely start against Samoa, although he will have the shadow of Farrell lurking just inside him in the number 12 shirt.
Meanwhile Stephen Myler continues to be selected as part of the squad despite not getting a look in, whilst Danny Cipriani doesn’t even get a look in despite quite possibly being the most exciting fly-half in the country. Unfortunately this continued selection bias has resulted in a complete lack of competition for the shirt and meant that should Owen Farrell take a knock before next year’s World Cup, Lancaster won’t have a back-up with the necessary game experience to step-in.
The fact that Lancaster looks set to move Farrell to inside centre in order to give George Ford an opportunity at 10 leads me to question what it is that Lancaster sees that we don’t? Even Farrell’s Saracens team mate has suggested it’s a ‘big call’ including him in the centres should set alarm bells ringing.
Now in fairness Farrell and Ford did play at 10 and 12 respectively for England U20’s, but this was several years ago, and was also back when Farrell was fully fit. Surely rather than subjecting Farrell to another potentially confidence shattering performance, he would be better left on the bench unless things go very wrong ready to pick-up the challenge once more during the Six Nations.
The other issue with this selection is how a centre combination of Farrell and Barritt is in stark contrast to Ford at 10. At Bath Ford has Eastmond and Joseph outside him, both are playmakers who like to attack the gainline and are willing to make runs off of Ford. In contrast Farrell and Barritt are much more defensively focussed and are much more likely to smash it up the middle than run lines for Ford.
To me this seems completely counter-intuitive, how is Ford meant to prove himself on the international stage when the players outside him are wanting to play to a different game plan. This is exactly the same issues Kyle Eastmond has found at inside centre – the players around him simply aren’t on the same wavelength which leaves him looking anonymous for large parts of the game.
This is in large part the reason why England’s wingers have barely had a sniff of the ball in recent weeks. Whereas at Bath Ford and Eastmond use quick hands to get it out wide, Farrell and Barritt like to keep it close to the chest, make hard yards and then get it out wide.
Frankly we are at the point now where Lancaster needs to decide which style of play he wants his side to go with and select the players accordingly. Continuing to select players in the current manner is only going to continue leaving the backline looking impotent as the players may be top quality in their own right, but don’t work as a cohesive unit.
In contract you look at the pack where the likes of Lawes and Hartley combine to near perfection in the line-out and the back row continue to compliment one another in their style of play. Lancaster and his coaching team need to look to instill the same level of compatibility in the back division in order to generate some fluidity in attack.
It is for this very reason that I am left frustrated at the very real possibility of Owen Farrell being moved into the number 12 shirt. Do you think Lancaster needs to bite the bullet and follow a singular selection policy in the backs?