Stuart Lancaster; the man who has the job that almost every England fan in the world would love to have, but at the same time is possibly the most problematic job in the sporting world this week. Every test week on a Monday or Tuesday I like to create a list, in which I decide what my starting England squad would be, and also what I think Lancaster will go for. And every week I can guess 13 or 14 of Lancaster’s picks, and they’re never far off mine. However, I have never been so unsure of a starting England line up as I am this week, yet I could tell you without fail the starting player in every position except for Fly Half and Outside Centre. In these positions, there are in my opinion 2 possible players each, and even though Lancaster decides his squad this coming Thursday I am at a loss to who he will pick. At 10 Farrell is his safe option. He’s tried and tested at International level, has very good kicking percentages, and is defensively sound.
His fantastic kicking is a large part of England’s victory over New Zealand in 2012, and helped bring England a 15 point lead, piling the pressure on New Zealand. However, he has been injured until recently and looked very rusty in Saracens convincing defeat to Munster. Lancaster’s dangerous option is George Ford. He has been in excellent form for Bath this season, and next to Kyle Eastmond has been opening up defences like no other 10 in world Rugby right now. There are areas of concern for him though, his kicking percentages aren’t anywhere as good as Farrell’s, his kicking percentages of 72% in his 4 years (prior to this season) in the Aviva premiership (53 matches) Farrell however, has 83% in the same time (however he has played 65 matches).
There are also questions over Ford’s defence. Then at 13, the battle is between Brad Barritt, and Jonathon Joseph. For me JJ is the only realistic answer in this position; however Barritt’s world class defence along with a much improved ball carrying role has really pushed him forward for a place back in the England centres. JJ also has solid defence, but provides a slightly stronger attacking game. Jonathan Joseph, has created at Bath something is constantly prominent in All Black squads with Kyle Eastmond. They seem to have built a telepathic connection. They are always in sync on the pitch, and don’t need to look for each other, but just know where one another are. This is something that Gordon D’Arcy and Brian O’ Driscoll had along with countless New Zealand centre partnerships that made them so dangerous, and this may be essential in unlocking the New Zealand defence.
Know, Lancaster has a choice, Farrell and Barritt, the safe option. They will create a sound defence, but as Stanley Baldwin famously said about German bombers “The bomber will always get through” and it is true of New Zealand. Throughout the last 2 sets of autumn internationals and the last 2 Rugby Championships New Zealand have averaged 31 points a game. New Zealand will score tries against England, and I would expect two or three, England will not win this game by stopping New Zealand scoring tries, but by scoring more themselves.
On a personal level I would rather see Ford, Eastmond and Joseph take up the England midfield and lose by 20 points, then see Farrell, Eastmond and Barritt start and England lose by 5. I would rather know now that Ford and Joseph aren’t good enough at International level, than be left with England knocked out at the Rugby World Cup wondering what if. Lancaster has to be brave. It may knock his reputation, but the culture of this England team will bounce back, and finding out if Ford and Joseph are good enough is more important than finding out once more Farrell and Barritt are nearly there, because if the axis of Ford, Eastmond and Joseph can reproduce club form, and England can gain at least parity in the pack, then New Zealand will be beaten, and England will finally have a back line that can pull apart world class defences, with the fantastic back three trio of Mike Brown, Semesa Rokoduguni and Marland Yarde. However,
I predict Lancaster will start Farrell and Joseph, and I hope they pull it off if he does, I just can’t believe England can afford to enter a World Cup without at least testing someone as naturally gifted in attack as George Ford. The only other change I would make from what I believe to be Lancaster’s starting team would be- given he’s back to full fitness- James Haskell in for Tom Wood.
My predicted England starting XV against New Zealand:
Forwards: Joe Marler, Dylan Hartley, David Wilson, Courtney Lawes, Dave Atwood (assuming he’s not away for the birth of his first child), Tom Wood, Chris Robshaw, Billy Vunipola
Backs: Danny Care, Owen Farrell, Kyle Eastmond, Jonathon Joseph, Marland Yarde, Semesa Rokoduguni, Mike Brown.