Cause for concern? England’s options at fly half

When Charlie Hodgson announced his international retirement at the end of June after a bit-part role in England’s tour of South Africa, nobody made too much fuss. Granted, there were some appropriately understated tributes to a man whose talent merited far more than 38 caps, but the prevailing feeling was that Stuart Lancaster had a pair of tried and tested performers at his disposal in Toby Flood and Owen Farrell. A 31 year-old with a history of defensive frailties would, apparently, not be missed.

Nearly three months on, such confidence seems slightly misplaced. Hodgson has found a new lease of life at Saracens, marking his move down from Stockport with some exceptional form. Fizzing passes from almost parallel to the gain-line, the veteran has ignited a new-look backline. Naturally, he has also made his kicks and passed 2,000 Premiership points during the Fez-Heads’ opening day demolition of London Irish at Twickenham.

Then, inexplicably, Hodgson was dropped to the bench for Saturday’s showdown against Leicester. The consequences, if not quite disastrous, were concerning. Frankly, anyone who watched an abject 9-9 draw will have been extremely discouraged with the state of England’s stand-off options. As well as missing four first-half penalties, Farrell was lateral and failed to create anything of a midfield spark. Opposite him, Flood seemed all at sea, sitting very deep at times and pressurising Sam Harrison, his young halfback partner, into managing Tigers’ attacks.

In short, both seemed pedestrian compared to foreign top-tier rivals, namely Stephen Jones of Wasps and Harlequin Nick Evans, both of whom enjoyed exceptional weekends. Only when Hodgson was finally introduced with half an hour to play did Saracens – then six points down – click into gear. Although a straightforward drop-goal chance went awry, the replacement was by far the most assured fly-half on show at Wembley.

Now, as a trio of tough encounters with the Southern Hemisphere giants looms on the autumn horizon – as well as a useful run-out against Fiji the week before – Lancaster could be forgiven for taking a rain check. He has enjoyed a sympathetic bedding-in period so results are essential, but there are exactly three years to go until the next World Cup. That is plenty of time for a different name to assert himself in such a key position.

Speaking very shortly after his permanent appointment last week, newly-instated Mike Catt announced that England were “only 15 or 20 percent towards where we want to go.” Maybe the remaining distance can be made up with someone else. Let’s have a look at the candidates.

Freshen up entirely

Freddie BurnsThe presence of George Ford and Freddie Burns in the Saxons squad named at the beginning of July is undoubtedly heartening. Evidently the ones-in-waiting after eye-catching Under 20 careers, both have taken their baby steps in the Premiership with unflappable poise. In fact, as Flood was floundering with a knee problem at the end of last year, teenager Ford thrived in the pressure-cooker of knockout rugby, while Burns was very nearly handed a ticket to Durban. The Gloucester tyro has started well again this season, and will benefit from being surrounded by an axis of Ben Morgan, Jimmy Cowan and Billy Twelvetrees over the course of the campaign.

Although Ford is far too mild-mannered to say so, the biggest obstacle he faces at the moment is Richard Cockerill. After condemning him to a summer in the weights room – which has yielded a nine-kilogram gain – Leicester’s head coach seems reluctant to deploy his starlet. Tellingly, Ford stayed on the bench this Saturday. With a distinct lack of Saxons fixtures, only overwhelmingly strong Premiership form will promote either member of this precocious duo. Tom Heathcote of Bath could join the club, pending successful rehabilitation from pre-season knee trouble.

Take a chance on an exile

It had to happen. A discussion on potential England number tens would not be the same without uttering the name of Danny Cipriani, especially now that the former (Melbourne) Rebel has relocated closer to home. Unfortunately, despite sky-high expectations in Cheshire, Bryan Redpath has not yet galvanised his Sale charges. During three losses – two of them heavy – Cipriani has hardly shone. He is, however, in the right place. Time is one hell of a healer and the skill that once ripped Ireland apart at Twickenham will still be there somewhere.

For some, Olly Barkley has re-emerged. In my opinion, though, this is just as far-fetched as a Cipriani recall. Though the 30 year-old has 23 caps from way-back-when and is in fine goal-kicking fettle, an unimaginative streak is crippling for his case. Shane Geraghty, back with London Irish following an ill-fated French foray, has also pulled on a white shirt, but don’t hold your breath for a repeat.

Steady the ship with a familiar face

The thought of tempting Hodgson back out of the club game is pretty depressing, even if he is the form fly half in England. Then again, it was good enough for Sir Alex Ferguson. When Manchester United ran out of options halfway through last season, the Scottish genius compelled Paul Scholes to return to his well-worn spot in midfield.

It is always dangerous and often idiotic to aim comparisons across sports, but Scholes and Hodgson do share some key qualities – brilliant distribution, an inconsistent success ratio on the tackling front. Alright, that’s enough. I promise not to push this idea, at least for another few weeks. The impact that such a drastic u-turn would have on the current crop would be debilitating, for a start. We won’t even mention Jonny Wilkinson.

Keep calm and carry on

A composed, clear thinker and pragmatic man-manager, Lancaster will not actually have been overly worried by the Wembley woes. Besides, it wasn’t long ago that Farrell was lauded by as the place-kicking prodigy to cure the crisis of 2011 after a prominent role in Six Nations victories over Scotland and Italy. Similarly, incumbent stand-off Flood has been good in Leicester’s two enterprising bonus-point wins earlier this month.

The ace that Lancaster does have in the EPS is former fly half Alex Goode, a footballer easily skilful enough to step up from fullback if required. While Farrell could well have been phased out by 2015, in the meantime he can be coaxed through these blips in form, especially with his fellow Saracen alongside him in the match-day 22 to direct attacking patterns, identify opportunities to counter and even take the reins at first-receiver if necessary. Speculation will rage on and on – it always does. For now, though, England will stick to their guns amid the misfire.

What do you think? Who do you think should start at fly-half for England in the Autumn Internationals?

By Charlie Morgan (@Charlie Morgan)

39 thoughts on “Cause for concern? England’s options at fly half

  1. A good article and very good and current discussion….

    UNTIL – the following headings came along. ‘Take a chance on an exile’. ‘Steady the ship with a familiar face’. Ruined it.

  2. It will be very interesting to see whether Lancaster goes for form, in which case Burns and Barkley are the candidates (baring a change of heart from Charlie!) or whether he goes for familiarity with Farrell and Flood. Not sure the latter style helped Johnno, but I do have more faith in Lancaster.

    Can’t really see anyone else in the mix at present. Wonder if Ford is looking from the sidelines wondering if he ought to be playing somewhere else? Twelvetrees moved and is now playing regularly!

  3. I share your concerns about the weekend as both 10s were pretty dire, but then we don’t know what they were told to do in the changing rooms and there are always other factors to consider. However, the Autumn tests are a whole different ball game and much as I love ‘soft hands’ Charlie, did we ever see those hands in an England shirt against SH opposition? He always went to pieces at the highest level. Yes, he’s relaxed now and playing his best – he’s also at (I believe) his highest level. Maybe he could ‘perform’ at his relaxed best for the All Blacks, but not us. I believe we need grit and steel at 10 and Farrell ALWAYS steps up. IMO Flood + Farrell is a good combo (and the best we’ve got) and we’ll leave it to Lancaster to pick who starts depending on tactics/opposition of the day. If either get injured then sure – put Cipriani in, everyone deserves another chance.

  4. A really well written article, but I personally can see no further than Toby Flood. Everyone has an off day, and he had one against Saracens, but he is still England’s number one FH.

    Farrell needs to get back in form, and then a team needs to have another playmaker around him.

    Would like to see Burns or Ford given a chance on the bench to make an impact sometime, though, maybe against Fiji or in the 6N?

  5. So Hodgson was “inexplicably dropped”.

    A little bit sensationalist if you ask me, given that for 2 years Saracens have played the rotation game with their scrum halves. Surely a very easy explanation is that they are doing the same with their number 10s now too.

    Another reason would also be the more solid defence of Farrell versus that of Hodgson.

    Inexplicable, no, not if you scratch the surface

  6. It is an interesting discussion, but everyones short memories does amuse me. Flood was excellent in Leicesters two opening games, yes I agree that he was poor at Wembley, but lets not panic. He had two very good games, and then a poor game, that’s no disaster.
    Ford will one day I am sure step into the England 10 shirt, but not until he is first choice at his club.
    Farrell simply does not look like a natural 10 to me.
    Barkley, Geraghty, Hodgeson, Wilko and Heathcote, all no.
    Potentially Burns, but I do not think that will happen without more consistency on his part.
    And Cipriani, well, I guess we will have to see what happens there.

  7. I’ve said it may times before, but Flood is not the same without Youngs at 9. With Youngs on the pitch Flood is our best option. But if Youngs is injured Farrell should start with Care at 9. Farrell had only just come back from a slight injury, and I wonder if it effected his kicking. This also meant he hadn’t trained as much with the team as maybe he should have. To be honest I thought Charlie should have started, with Farrell on the bench for the Wembley game.
    Burns has looked in control, Barkley is playing well, but it would be going backwards. Cipriani is nowhere near the 10 shirt yet, but give him time.
    Flood or Farrell will get the nod if fit. But if this is so, it will also mean that Ford should get some game time for the Tigers, and that will put pressure on them both.

  8. Going back to Hodgson seems bleak, but I’d never shut the door on Jonny. Playing alongside/battling for a spot with Matt Giteau and Freddy Michalak is bringing out the best of him. Long-term, Ford is still the answer.

  9. I would say bring back Jonny (I agree with Ben that he is playing well) and then skip the current generation to go straight to the Ford/Burns options to develop while Jonny is keeping England from getting thrashed. This worked well for Wales when handing off from Stephen Jones to Priestland (let’s ignore all of those disastrous experiments with Hook). Flood could be England’s Nicky Robinson – when he’s good he’s great but when he’s bad….

    My problem with Farrel is that he is always feted for his kicking and defence and this is the wrong emphasis for a fly half – other teams do very well with a non-defensive (looking at you Priestland) outside half providing he can get the backline moving in attack and has somebody else on the team who can kick. I have not seen much of that attacking flair from Farrel. Of course this is countered by the other extreme of Cipriani who has the defensive skills of O’Gara on a bad day and shouldn’t be allowed near an international shirt until he stops giving interviews every weekend about his hopes (read as expectations) of playing for England again now he’s magnanimously decided to move back home for the good of English rugby.

  10. Firstly, I’d like to say that I think the 5 second rule will help develop our premiership fly halves into quicker decision makers which will help them make the step up to international level. THese guys need to be in more of a pressure cooker environment when they practise their skills week in week out.

    Same discussions we’ve been haaving since Jonny was in his prime really, Flood has never looked liked he could guide a team through a whole tournament and grind out results when he is on an off day. Even when England were playing poorly you felt Jonny could pull us through witht the help of good discipline through the forwards. do we currently have either of these qualities? I think not unfortunately. We now have to look to the bench if our 10 is misfiring. Our pack lacks discipline when under pressure, so much can come from lancaster but the players need a natural instinct to know how to win these games and play the basics well. our defence is tight enough that with good game management we should be able to close out tight games. Our pack is not so young right now. If we play poorly we currently lose and if we’re level towards the end my nerves are shredded.
    Maybe the point about skipping a gen is not so bad, but I doubt Jonny would do well for himself being a stop gap and losing pecking order at his club, given the other two arent internationals. I thought he was the stop gap in 2007!!
    Fly halves are mercurial figures and the strength in depth for most countries is not great as it takes a personality as well as a great multiskilled player to be the best.

  11. Flood is currently our no.1 option at FH, with Farrell his back up. My problem with this is that after all the caps that Flood has won, to me he’s never looked like an assured international FH. Granted, he has had some brilliant games – but on the whole i think he’s had more bad games than good. The emphasis now is on 2015 and building to the future. With that in mind, I would like to see Burns be given a go in the AI’s, with Flood on the bench (to provide the “experience”). This will also allow Ford to pick up game time at Leicester, and hopefully (if he proves himself) then be involved in the 6N’s next year.

    As for Farrell, i think he’s a good player with many strengths and a maturity beyond his age – but his current form and slight “one dimension game” at the moment is not what England need. Also, I feel his best position is in the centre, and I would say there are several others that offer better options in those positions.

    If we are to compete with the SH teams, we need to find a FH capable of consistently unleashing a backline. We have a huge amount of talent to pick from – some with experience, some with simply raw talent. Now is about deciding what our “game style” and “identity” are, picking the players that fit the structure, and allow them to form solid, efficient and effective partnerships. Of course, this is just my opinion

  12. Interesting conundrum with Farrell. He has a skill set which could be used at FH or inside centre – tackling, kicking (tactical can be a bit hit and miss) and unflappability, but lacks that cutting edge distribution for FH and attacking flair for inside centre. If he can’t develop these he may get left behind by the next generation.

    I still reckon that Burns has started the season better than any other FH but we don’t know how he will take to the speed and intensity of international rugby. Why not try him as a substitute in the AI’s to get a feel for his development. There isn’t anything other than pride to play for unlike the 6N.

  13. Possible team for AI’s. Thoughts?

    1. Corbisiero
    2. Hartley
    3. Cole
    4. Botha
    5. Parling
    6. Johnson
    7. Robshaw
    8. Morgan
    9. Care
    10. Burns
    11. Abendanon
    12. Allen
    13. Tuilagi
    14. Ashton
    15. Brown

    16. Youngs
    17. Marler
    18. Lawes
    19. Waldrom
    20. Youngs
    21. Flood / Farrell
    22. Joseph

    1. Going back to the 2010 combination of Lawes and Palmer would solve the physicality issues we had against the Boks, but I think it only works if there is a Wood/Croft lineout option in the backrow. Assuming players recovering from injuries recapture something close to best form I would go for:

      1. Corbisiero
      2. Hartley
      3. Cole
      4. Lawes
      5. Palmer
      6. Wood
      7. Robshaw
      8. Morgan
      9. Care
      10. Flood
      11. Abendanon
      12. Tuilagi
      13. Joseph
      14. Ashton
      15. Brown

      16. Youngs
      17. Marler
      18. Parling
      19. Waldrom/Johnson
      20. Youngs
      21. Burns
      22. Goode

      I can see Marler coming under pressure from Vunipola (does Vunipola cover both sides as well?).

  14. For the period of time he was fit and on the pitch Flood looked good on the summer tour. Being outside the Tigers No 3 SH at the weekend, one position the Tigers lack quality in depth, didn’t do him any favours. The combination just didn’t work. So I think this one abomination should be disregarded (for now) and he stays our number one.

    Farrell needs a run of games at 10 and, now that Sarries aren’t playing so much anti-Rugby, to develop his game. I wouldn’t put him near an England shirt again until he is playing well again and, more importantly for me, allowing others to play well around him. The contribution has to be more than tackles, place kicks and hoofs in the air.

    Charlie has never managed to replicate his super passing club game on the international stage, so I don’t see we should be looking back there.

    Whilst Ford may be the long term solution I don’t think we can put him in frame for AIs unless he starts playing for Tigers.

    I would go for Flood and Burns (giving Burns a minimum of 30 mins against Fiji) on current form. If Flood’s form does go to pot then I wouldn’t mind seeing one last hurrah from Wilko!

  15. I completely agree with everything Matt says, Flood with Burns as back up.

    AI Team:

    1. Corbisiero
    2. Hartley
    3. Cole
    4. Lawes
    5. Botha
    6. Wood
    7. Robshaw
    8. Morgan
    9. Care
    10. Flood
    11. Wade
    12. Barritt
    13. Tuilagi
    14. Ashton
    15. Brown

    16. Youngs
    17. Marler (although my opinion may change if someone tells me Vunipola can play both sides)
    18. Palmer
    19. Johnson
    20. Simpson
    21. Burns
    22. Joseph

    This team works on the assumption that both Youngs and Foden are out injured. Otherwise that is all of our injury worries over, am I right?

  16. Jeez Flood has one bad game and its the end of his career. He’s first choice end of (though agree he plays better with Youngs and vice versa). The real battle is who is back up. Surely it has has to be Burns based on the first few round ( no and don’t call me Shirley).

  17. I agree that Flood has never really convinced as an international FH.He can be good,very good at times but falls short of real class and command at that level.The upcoming AI’s should be used to test other options because I can’t see Flood at the next WC.The two obvious candidates are Burns and Ford.Amid all the calls for Burns to get his chance I have yet to hear any concern over his size,as was the case with Ford who is now the bulkier of the pair.Any opinions on this?

  18. My England team from the last three weeks form would be:

    1. J. Marler
    2. D. Hartley
    3. D. Cole
    4. G. Robson
    5. G. Parling
    6. T. Johnson
    7. C. Robshaw
    8. B. Morgan

    9. J. Simpson
    10. F. Burns
    11. C. Wade
    12. B. Barritt
    13. M. Tuilagi
    14. C. Ashton
    15. M. Brown

    16. M. Vunipola
    17. T. Youngs
    18. C. Lawes
    19. T. Waldrom
    20. D. Care
    21. T. Flood
    22. A. Goode

  19. Given the paucity of choice I guess that Lancaster has to decide whether he wants a tackling goal kicking uninventive FH, or one with more flair but smaller and therefore considered more suspect tackling wise.

    Interesting question – Is size or technique more important when tackling? (and both is not a possible answer in this limited poll!)

    1. I believe if your technique is right, the size doesn’t make much difference. What does is your willingness to complete the tackle. Flood is lacking the aggression in this department, as I believe Burns is as well. Farrell has no lack of aggression, but does lack the ability to move the backline like Flood or Burns can.
      Start with Flood or Burns (with Barritt at 12), run the ball as much as possession allows. Then bring on Farrell after 50 mins or so, and keep the opposition in their own half with good tactical kicking.

      1. Whilst technique and commitment can help the smaller player tackle effectively, it is ludicrous to suggest “the size doesn’t make much difference”. Why are all the best tacklers in the game big? Why do they hit the gym?

        1. Point taken, but in the case of Flood and Farrell, they are the same height, and Farrell is listed at 5kg’s heavier. I would say that Farrell is a far more effective tackler than Flood, but is it because of his technique or his willingness to tackle? It’s certainly not because he’s big!
          I’ve seen many smaller players bring down “big” players by using their weight and momentum. Their is more than one way to tackle bigger players effectively, no matter how big you are. Anyone who has studied martial arts could tell you that. (Though I’m not suggesting you drop kick them!)

        2. I know size does make a difference but was interested to know what people thought in the size v technique debate, although bearing in mind the comments it probably should have been size v tackling aptitude!

  20. If you play Barritt at 12 I think we can afford the luxury of a more deft fly half. Rugby more than any other sport is so much about combinations from front and second rows to the back row, midfield and back three. For instance if Farrell was picked I would look to a more creative 12. Flood is a good all rounded IMO so you could play a creative or defensive 12 outside him depending on the opposition/ conditions.

  21. Flood. He should be our linchpin from now right through to the world cup. Now is his time. Fully out of Johnny’s shadow.

    Ford to deputise.

  22. As for the Autumn, I think it’s key to start with Flood against New Zealand, Australia and SA. Regardless of current form, at this stage it’s worth remember that he can be up there on his good days, and he has vital experience against these teams. Farrell on the bench.

    However, I think for the Fiji game, Goode should be given a start to test the waters again. He may even prove to be the go to man on the bench at least for the other tests.

    As a Quins fan though, I’m thinking maybe they should look into Evans’ eligability on residence (my tongue is in my cheek for this; before you all start)

    1. I don’t think it would be an option as he has played 16 caps for the All Blacks. I’m sure I’m right in thinking if he had no caps at full test level it would be possible, but alas, no!

  23. I would like to see Sarries give Goode some time at 10. They have plenty of cover at fifteen with Wyles, Ratuvou and Ransom to name a few. Goode has the natural ability to switch to 10, and could be better than Farrell given the chance. His defence has got better, and his eye for the gap and his step are probably in the top five in the Premiership.
    I guess if Hodgson or Farrell got injured, it would probably happen anyway with their rotation policy.

    1. Mr f Burns of gloucester, he his playing at the top of his game at the moment and deserves to be in the England elite team, his only problem is he plays for Gloucester and not a London club so he will probaly be ignored for top honours, (whats new).

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