The composed, subtle playmaking ability of George Ford, or the abrasive, icy intensity of the talismanic Owen Farrell? Or both? ‘Neither!’ scream the Danny Cipriani supporters club. Well, in a major selection shock, Eddie Jones has put his faith solely in his captain Farrell, dropping Ford for this Saturday’s crucial quarter final clash against the Wallabies.
Ford, who has arguably been England’s stand out player thus far, and many commentators pick at fly half in a team of the pool stages, drops to the bench, with Farrell returning to 10, Manu Tuilagi shifting inside to 12 and Henry Slade slotting in at outside centre.
Meanwhile, both of the Vunipola brothers will start, while Courtney Lawes is preferred to George Kruis at second row, in a pack bursting with aggression and ball carrying power. In reverting to the midfield combination he trusted in the Six Nations, Jones clearly intends to physically and tactically overwhelm Australia, rather than play the dynamic running game that Ford would enable.
Farrell, admittedly, has struggled to find his rhythm so far this tournament, but he is a big game player with steely nerves – expect him to deliver. He is also, and one suspects this is why Jones may have dropped Ford, somebody who thrives in a dogfight, who lives for those tooth and nail, backs against the wall victories, those last minute decisive kicks.
If Farrell lacks Fords skill at taking the ball to the line, and bringing teammates into play, then clearly, in Jones’ mind, he makes up for it with his direction, leadership and assured presence at fly half.
We should not forget, too, Henry Slade’s role in all this. Coming in after so long out injured will be difficult, but Slade is an incredible player, always an option at first receiver, from the boot in the wide channels, and a threat, given his blend of physicality and footwork, ball in hand.
Indeed, it is easy to reduce this decision to Farrell over Ford, when in reality it may well have been Slade vs Ford for that final spot in the England midfield all along. Crucially, Slade fits the bill as a second playmaker, having come through the ranks at fly half, so England will not lose any control, distribution or kicking variety in Ford’s absence.
However, the standout selection comes not from Jones, but Michael Cheika, who brings in 19-year old Jordan Petaia at 13. The youngster, who has played just eleven times for the Queensland Reds, and usually plays at fullback, is undoubtedly talented, who knows whether he can handle the pressure? We wait to see.
England: 15-Elliot Daly, 14-Anthony Watson, 13-Henry Slade, 12-Manu Tuilagi, 11-Jonny May, 10-Owen Farrell (captain), 9-Ben Youngs, 8-Billy Vunipola, 7-Sam Underhill, 6-Tom Curry, 5-Courtney Lawes, 4-Maro Itoje, 3-Kyle Sinckler, 2-Jamie George, 1-Mako Vunipola. Replacements: 16-Luke Cowan-Dickie, 17-Joe Marler, 18-Dan Cole, 19-George Kruis, 20-Lewis Ludlam, 21-Willi Heinz, 22-George Ford, 23-Jonathan Joseph
Australia: 15-Kurtley Beale, 14-Reece Hodge, 13-Jordan Petaia, 12-Samu Kerevi, 11-Marika Koroibete, 10-Christian Lealiifano, 9-Will Genia, 8-Isi Naisarani, 7-Michael Hooper (captain), 6-David Pocock, 5-Rory Arnold, 4-Izack Rodda, 3-Allan Alaalatoa, 2-Tolu Latu, 1-Scott Sio. Replacements: 16-Jordan Uelese, 17-James Slipper, 18-Taniela Tupou, 19-Adam Coleman, 20-Lukhan Salakaia-Loto, 21-Nic White, 22-Matt To’omua, 23-James O’Connor