Following Saturday’s victory over France more questions again arose about who should be selected for England’s world cup squad, and more prominently everyone was obsessed with how Sam Burgess did. From the highlights I saw Sam Burgess played well, but so did Henry Slade as did all of England’s backline, and that is the last I will say of Burgess specifically. More pertinently England still have an unsolved midfield. Brad Barritt and Jonathan Joseph are the incumbents mixing pace and guile with defensive clout, however one option that has been used once before and then forgotten about is the Owen Farrell at 12.
Owen Farrell has his fans and his critics in equal measure. What he does provide is solid defence, a big game temperament, good distribution, an excellent right foot, good communication and leadership. He combines the qualities of both Barritt and Slade, and to a degree seems like an upgrade on Billy Twelvetrees. Farrell is regarded as one of the key leaders in the England squad as well as being a vocal and dominant figure on the pitch this will set him in good stead as defensive organiser at inside centre.
In addition his experience at fly half means he has the distribution to release Joseph and the flying back three; while his off-loading at the weekend suggests a new dimension that could help England get on the front foot going forward too. As an extra playmaker Farrell can also line up to attack on the blindside forcing defences to guess which way England will attack greatly increasing the chance of an attacking mismatch. Finally Farrell can act as a second kicker to relieve pressure, pin the opposition back or as a stand in goal-kicker if Ford is having a bad day at the office as all kickers can do. Evidently at inside centre Farrell provides many options.
Although there are some drawbacks with Farrell playing at inside centre I believe they are not as considerably as first glances may suggest. Barritt is seen as a powerful ball carrier, that can suck defenders in and force quick ball. Firstly, of all the ball carrying centres England have Barritt is probably the least renowned for punching holes and getting over the gain-line. Indeed Farrell is in fact slightly taller than Barritt and only a few kilos lighter so there is very little bulk lost, suggesting Farrell has the ability and size to take the ball to the line, while also forcing defences to guess with his offloading and distribution. What Farrell is not is a Burrell or a Burgess in size and power, however neither have lit up the centres nor bust so many holes that they demand selection for England.
Secondly, though Barritt is seen as one of the best defensive centres in the world, Farrell is the general at fly-half and those communication skills can easily be utilised I defence. In contrast Farrell probably lacks the vision and threat that Henry Slade brings with his footwork and footballing ability. Yet, at inside centre Slade brings neither experience or the size that the coaches seemingly want, and Farrell does possess the skills of Slade but probably lacks the finesse. In fact Farrell has nearly 30 caps in international rugby, as well as a Lions tour under his belt, experience neither Slade nor Burgess have, and which in the pressures of a world cup become invaluable, he would be the most capped centre option England have in their squad.
Clearly there are many reasons why Farrell seems an ideal candidate as inside centre for England at this world cup, based on the game they want to play and the players they want to utilise. I am saying this because over the years I have not always been Farrell’s biggest fan at fly-half as I do not think he brings enough creativity or genuinely threatens the defence. What he does do is tick all the boxes that England need at centre for this world cup, he offers defensive clout and organisation, distribution, the odd offload, the attacking possibilities of another play-maker, a reliable boot and Test match experience.
In George Ford and Jonathan Joseph around him Farrell has two players with the vision and ability to open up defences, allowing the Saracen to provide the solidity in the midfield to allow them to work their magic, creating a balance that possesses more attacking threat than Barritt without losing any of the defensive surety. The comparison with Barritt is important because Barritt is the one most likely to start at 12 and so anything Farrell brings must be assessed against Barritt, and, as I have shown, he provides everything Barritt does and more.
The one issue England have is time. Farrell has played at inside centre once for England, against Samoa in the Autumn internationals. However, Joseph and Barritt have not played together at all this year and so this should not count against Farrell, in regard to forming a partnership, Barritt and Joseph are playing in their first choice positions where as Farrell would not. However, Farrell started his career in the centres for England and spent all of age-grade rugby playing outside of Ford at 12, so in fact the chances are he could slot in comfortably. Another difference from that game against Samoa is that England now have their backline sorted with Joseph now the man in possession of the 13 shirt, which would make a run out for Farrell at 12 far more beneficial. In reality though England have 2 more warm up games before their World cup campaign begins against Fiji.
The game against Ireland must feature England’s first choice XV to smooth out any flaws before the campaign starts. That leaves the game against France this weekend to try this out. The likelihood of England doing this is probably zero, with calls for Slade and Burgess to get another run out, which is justified from last weekend, while Barritt and Joseph need some game time after so long since the end of the season. One possibility is to select Barritt and Joseph and then introduce Farrell in the second half before moving him to fly half for the last 20 minutes and either bringing on Slade or Burgess. In this case I would bring on Burgess as I think Slade showed what he could offer against France and has far more union experience than Burgess who needs all the time he could get, whether he merits it or not the coaches have selected him this far and so should have a genuine look at what he can do.
Although not a fan of Farrell at fly-half I think alongside Ford and Joseph he provides the best all round game of anyone left in the squad at inside centre, whether England try this is another matter, with a few injuries they could be forced to; either way as a fan I would really love to see England give this a try before the world cup. What do you think could Farrell genuinely offer England what they need at 12?