It may be a considerable risk to start Jamie George in the World Cup opener against Fiji given his lack of international experience, but can they afford not to?
Before going in to the reasons for this, I first want to make clear that this isn’t meant to be a rant about Tom Youngs who was frankly superb in almost every facet of the game against Ireland, simply a case of ensuring England are best able to play to their strengths during several must win games.
The reality is that since time began, England have always worked off a strong platform built by the forwards. This involved winning scrums and line outs whilst rucking and mauling to provide the backs with solid ball. Unfortunately in the build up to the World Cup this all seems to have fallen apart somewhat and left England looking slightly exposed.
The problem is that whilst Tom Youngs is a superb athlete, and fine rugby player, his biggest weakness is unfortunately England’s biggest strength. Against Ireland, both the line out and scrum got visibly more secure with the introduction of George, ensuring the forwards provided cleaner ball for the backs to play with.
For this reason alone, England must seriously consider including George from the word go whilst using Youngs as an impact sub who can make his presence felt in the loose against tiring opponents. However, there are other issues that come with selecting Youngs over George as the starting hooker.
It looks increasingly likely that if Youngs is selected as first choice hooker, that Geoff Parling will also be selected in the second row to help compensate in the line out. Whilst Parling is a top quality lock, and one of the world’s best line out operators, he does not offer as much around the pitch as the man he replaced, Joe Launchbury.
Whilst Launchbury wasn’t quite at his best against Ireland, this is to be expected given his long injury lay off over the last 12 months. However, anyone who has watched Launchbury on a regular basis for either England or Wasps will attest to his quality when fully fit meaning he should be given the nod to start.
Whilst is makes complete sense to select two players in a combination because of the way they compliment one another, it does not make sense to select a player simply to compensate for another’s failings in specific areas of the game. This sets a poor precedent and potentially leaves England weakened in more than one area.
It is a huge shame that Youngs hasn’t quite found his rhythm at the set piece given he was one of England’s best players in the loose, and outshone George in this area against Ireland. The reality though is that much of England’s game plan has always been based around forward dominance, and this cannot be achieved without a stable set piece.
What we lose from Youngs in the loose will be more than compensated for by the improvements in ball retention at the set piece, whilst George has also proven himself to be a key figure around the park for Saracens in recent years. The provision of front foot ball will also give England’s improving backline more chance to take advantage of any potential holes in the oppositions defence. It’s also important not to forget that Youngs would still be on the bench so can enter the fray and make his trademark impact at any stage during a game.