England’s healed stars return bringing selection dilemmas

Forgetting the performances for one moment, phase one of England’s Six Nations championship is successfully complete. Difficult wins in troublesome matches away in Edinburgh and Rome have created momentum and also given English rugby the injection of confidence it so dearly needed.

Now ahead of Wales, Stuart Lancaster has a chance to evaluate how his new team has fared so far, and if possible make amendments to what was an unchanged squad in Italy last week. The interim Head Coach first spoke about this time to reassess back at the announcement of Chris Robshaw’s captaincy, principally down to the fact that many stars are now fit again having missed the first two rounds, including Courtney Lawes, Toby Flood and Manu Tuilagi.

By coincidence, the players returning play in positions where England at the moment are not quite firing on all cylinders. Lawes has been a mainstay of the England side since his first start against Australia in June 2010, but returns from injury to find the in-form Saracen Mouritz Botha in his place. Regularly used by Northampton Saints at blindside flanker, as recently as last weekend against Gloucester, replacing Botha would seem wrong given how well he has performed. Tom Croft has come under heavy criticism in recent weeks for his lack of physicality, not all of it fair, but having both Botha and Lawes in the pack would give them a greater amount of aggression, something that they have lacked in the first two rounds. Tom Wood, the man believed to be Lancaster’s initial choice as captain, remains sidelined indefinitely.

Away from the pack, England also have the Leicester duo of Toby Flood and Manu Tuilagi available again. Selection in this area has proved difficult for some time, but based on the first two matches, whilst Owen Farrell and Brad Barritt have performed well, England’s attack has not. It is worth remembering at this point that Charlie Hodgson’s reinstatement to the national side came on the back of all three of England’s fly-halves from the Rugby World Cup being unavailable.

Throwing in Owen Farrell for his debut at 10 would have been a gamble even too great for this experimental England. But after 160 minutes in an England shirt, Farrell has shown little to be concerned about. He seemed to handle playing at this level remarkably well in the baying pit of Murrayfield and horrendous conditions of Rome, enough to make him indispensable. His partner in the centre, Brad Barritt, has performed brilliantly in defence. Which leaves Hodgson.

Stuart Lancaster’s preference for two playmakers has so far with regards to England’s attack only produced two charged down tries. He may continue to use it, but with Flood and Farrell as the 10 and 12 combination. Flood has not started at fly-half since England played Georgia in Dunedin six matches ago. Moving Farrell to 10 would mean shifting Barritt infield, to a position where greater handling is required which happens to be an area where he is underrated. By doing this, England can bring in that raw pace at outside centre that they are currently missing.

For now that man is Manu Tuilagi. England have missed the X Factor he brings to that channel, and if they can put him in positions where he is collecting offloads from Barritt and exploding past the first tackler, then David Strettle and Chris Ashton will be more involved. Looking at the immediate future, Tuilagi’s physicality alongside Barritt would also strengthen the midfield against the powerful duo of Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies in two weeks time. Elsewhere, Jonathan Joseph caught the eye again on his return from injury for London Irish against Harlequins with one of the tries of the season last Saturday. This Six Nations has just come too early for him, but his inclusion on the summer tour to South Africa is essential.

The inclusion of either Flood, Tuilagi, or both, plus the potential inclusion of Ben Morgan and Lee Dickson after two bright performances from the bench, would represent a substantial change to England’s teamsheet from Rome. Going forward, the results are arguably not important. England’s objective from the first two games was to pick up at least one victory, which they have comfortably surpassed. From now onwards, against established sides in Wales, France and Ireland who will be favourites in all three matches, what matters are the performances. That includes improving their philosophy at the breakdown, and showing more attacking intent. By bringing in Tuilagi and moving Farrell, England will have more gunpowder in their barrel.

by Ben Coles

33 thoughts on “England’s healed stars return bringing selection dilemmas

  1. Is Barritt really underrated as a 12. If so how come he plays there every week for the Premiership Champions. Very very rarely seen him drop a ball or knock or miss a tackle. In fact I don’t think I’ve ever seen him have a bad game. Maybe he is not the best attacking option, but it would be harsh to drop him. For me a trio of Farrell, Barritt and Tuilagi would be a good start against Wales See if Farrell can handle the pressure coming from the Welsh midfield. If it’s not working, then bring Hodgson off the bench. Watched Flood in the Leicester game last week, and it was not overly impressed. Perhaps he could spark Youngs back into the real world, but he has had his chance and Dickson should get the nod to start against Wales.

  2. I dont see the point in rushing an out of sorts Flood back but England need to find some attacking flair very quickly. Farrell may be a great kicker but his attacking stats over the past few weeks are dreadful.

  3. I think I’m with Peter at the moment, although still undecided. Flood, Farrell and Tuilagi looks pretty good on paper.

    Flood’s form is a slight concern, so a Farrell, Barritt, Tuilagi combination might be safer, and that would be more solid defensively (likely to be important against the Welsh giants!).

  4. “Difficult wins in troublesome matches away in Edinburgh and Rome have created momentum and also given English rugby the injection of confidence it so dearly needed.” That’s one perspective. Another is lucky wins in what should be the easiest matches on paper highlight a lack of physicality and creativity. Yes, I know they weren’t easy matches, because there aren’t really any easy matches in this competition any more, but compared to the next three fixtures they would have been ones where England were targeting wins.

    That said, there’s no cause for doom and gloom, this is effectively a new England team on a steep learning curve. As often as not it’s the tough games like the next match against Wales where we really see what new blood is capable of, and with a few changes like those highlighted in the article this England team are capable of a lot more.

    The obvious changes are Morgan and Dickson in at 8 and 9. England didn’t look like they had any ball-carrying back-rows on the field until Morgan came on and Youngs looks more mentally weak with each game. Lawes at blindside is also an appealing prospect with the added physicality he will bring vital against a rampaging Welsh back-row.

    10, 12 and 13 is a more difficult question, but it should either be Flood/Farrell/Tuilagi or Farrell/Barritt/Tuilagi. Dropping Barritt would be harsh, Hodgson not so much, despite those two charge-downs, and Tuilagi has to be accomodated. Farrell’s assurance off the kicking tee means he plays, wherever that may be. Anyone who doesn’t think so should take a look at the situation Italy and Scotland found themselves in at the weekend without a reliable place-kicker.

  5. I’m in agreement with the Farrell Barritt and Tuilagi partnership.

    I think Faz will cope defensively, and think Barritt’s solid defence work in the 12 channel is a must. Tuilagi just has the ability to break that gain line but it becomes predictable. Ashton, Foden and Strettle will be gagging to get over the try line but that spark will need to come from somewhere.

  6. I think I would go for the Farrell, Barritt and Tuilagi set-up as well.

    I do think it is unfair on Hodgson given that his charge-downs have possibly been the only difference between being 2/2 and 0/2. People may call them lucky but I think that’s rubbish. Its something they practice at Sarries and he has picked his moments well.

    I think Young’s performance has’t given him much to work with and it was noticeable that he was getting the passes out much more easily once Dickson was providing him with quick ball.

    However, that said, you have to fit Tuilagi in and for his defense alone, Barritt has to be in against the massive Welsh back line. Unfortunately, you can’t depend on Hodgson for the kicking, so I would reluctantly drop him

    Farrell hasn’t been fazed so far and I would think that his best position would be 10 rather than centre

    As for Lawes playing blind-side, we already have enough flankers for this position without shoe-horning someone else in there. Dowson looked much better against Italy. Stick him in his proper position on the blind-side in place of Croft and he may do even better. Ease Lawes in by putting him the bench in place of Parling (harsh again) and he can cover both lock and flanker

    ‘course the down-side of that is that you lose Croft in a line-out that has been looking shaky. Tough choices!

  7. I’m in agreement that the 10-12-13 combo should be Farrell, Barritt and Tuilagi. Farrell should be able to cope with the demands of 10 and Barritt, while not being the most dynamic 12 on the planet, is still a damn fine player who has impressed in his first couple of games. Tuilagi if fit is nailed on 13. Got pace and power and he’ll be able to bring on Foden to carry the ball on after he has made the initial line break.

    Youngs should be dropped for Dickson and Flood should be on the bench, providing he plays this weekend and plays well. I’m not sure Lawes should come in at 6, but I would definitely have him on the bench, mainly due to lack of game time as a result of his injury. Drop Croft and stick Dowson at 6 and bring in Morgan at 8. That should give us a bit more go forward and quicker ball which should be able to release the backs.

  8. I think Morgan and Dickson are a must at the 9-8 channel, Youngs looks completely off the pace and could perhaps do with getting some game time in at Leicester, rather than with England. Why rush Flood back!? We have two decent fly halves in Farrell and Hodgson, Farell having the added advantage of being a very reilable kicker. If we want to go for a playmaker at 10 why not try freddie burns at gloucester. Barritt and Tuilagi in the centres whilst not being dynamic will be strong, dealing with a big welsh backline and hopefully unleash our back three. perhaps move sharples in for ashton?

    No need to rush Lawes back either, botha and palmer are playing ok, if we really want to go for grunt and aggression then fine, but we will need more than that against a top class welsh pack. Still think we need a fetcher at seven…

  9. Can’t agree with Farrell at 10 I’m afraid. Two main reasons for this:

    1. We always complain about not producing ball-playing 12s. That is because anyone who is a bit of a ball player gets shoved to ten and everybody else gets sent to the gym. We have a guy who is playing most of his rugby in the centre, has most of the skills of a 10, decent temperament and is reasonably physical. This is the blueprint for the type of 12 everybody (not least on the Blog) has been crying out for and I really think we should invest in him in that position.

    2. We have seen absolutely no evidence that Farrell can fire a backline. Saracens won the league playing a very imited gameplan. He is behind Hodgson at Sarries and George Ford was the 10 at U20s (as an aside, played against Ford a few weeks back, he’s an absolute turnstyle in defence, don’t get too excited). He has been pretty inconspicuous in attack for England thus far and I actually don’t think has helped Hodgson out as much as he could. In contrast, Hodgson looked a class above everyone else in the team in attack against Italy. He played in the traffic, distributed well, it wasn’t his fault everybody outside him was running dead straight lines.

    I’ve been impressed with Barritt and would be concerned about a defensive combo of Hodgson, Farrell and Tuilagi and if it wasn’t for the goal-kicking I would have been tempted to bring Tuilagi in for Farrell. But I think Farrell is the future and needs to be given a long run in that position so as it is Barritt is the odd man out. And at present I would definitely have Hodgson over Flood.

    1. I think I agree with all you said except cementing Farrell as the future. Great goal kicker but nothing else. I think hes a poor attacking player whatever position you field him. The argument for having him in because hes such a good kicker is OK but i think a decent attacking midfield would yield more oppurtunities for points.

      I would want Hodgson, Barrit, Tuilagi if i was confident enough to have Charlie nudging. Can he not be trusted with the kicking?

      The sloution to this dilema for me is Flood finding his form from last six nations then we have a great kicker and decent attacking/defending 10.

    2. Also i think 12 should be primarily a ball carrier. Obviously he needs handling as well but look at the top 12s Roberts, Nonu, Sonny Bill, De villiers (to a lesser extent), Jauzion in the past. Big guys to get you over the gainline then you play from there.

  10. Kiwi viewpoint here: Surprised about the clamour to drop Croft. I’d suggest some people are missing what he does. England aren’t using him to his full potential in the loose or lineout. The latter needs tightening and then you will see more of him in that area. Once England can play with more possession you will also see more of Croft and hi s ability to follow the play. Whenever I’ve seen him he has exceptional stamina and this is why he shows up so often in the last quarter of games. Maybe he needs to be more physical – he lost a bit of an edge with injuries last year but you don’t survive in the scrum at Leicester without enough physicality.

    1. Croft is a great player, but as you say we dont play to his strengths – i think playing Morgan at 8 will give a better balance, as Croft is not an enforcer type player, and having him in the team means you need a pair of steamrollers in the second row and an 8 with real presence

      1. Croft is a luxury as he does not do the hard work that a blind-side should. He doesn’t make the amount of tackles he should and one of the reasons that the breakdown is poor for england is that he doesn’t hit the rucks

        As R120 says, if you play Croft you need some lumps in the second row and a proper number 8

        1. Agree 100% Paolo. I know a lot of the pundits also argue he provides good cover in the second row, but when was the last time we got caught out by not having someone who could play lock? I don’t recall Croft ever having to pack down there for England. Just pick the best 6. Not a decent 6 that can cover 4/5.

          In this rebuilding phase of England’s evolution we need to be starting from basics, going back to picking the players that demonstrate consistent performance in the skills that are core to their positions. Youngs has clearly failed at that. Croft is a good player but there’s no question, he is not in the thick of the rucks as much as we need from our 6. To be fair to him, this is amplified by deficiencies in other positions.

  11. Aside from the line out, Croft has offered nothing for England for a while now. His stats are pretty poor which is a but of a mystery as he was excellent for the Lions.

  12. Got a feeling he will start with the same back line as the first two games, but with Flood and Tuilagi on the bench. Probably same with Lawes. He has to start Dickson and Morgan, but they may be the only two changes from the starting XV.

    1. If we start with the same line up, it’s unlikely he will have Flood and Tuilagi on the bench. With Farrell and Hodgson on the filed, we don’t need another 10 on the bench. I suspect Tuilagi would replace JTH on the bench, and Brown will retain his spot. We need a scrum half, someone to cover a centre position, and wing/full back.

  13. easy
    Subs Stevens,Weber,Lawes,Clarke,Dickson,Flood,Turner Hall.
    That imo is our best team for the Wales game still think we will get beat, Wales have been exceptional.

  14. Farrel, Barritt and Manu for me. Yes its defensive but it is also very direct. I’d also have Lawes and Botha together in the 2nd row and rely on croft for the lineout. Morgan and Dickson must be a given. Flood on the bench to come on with youngs if needed. I think Youngs plays better with flood.

    1. Having Botha and Lawes in the second row with Croft your line out option and Dawson and Morgan as givens in the back row means you are dropping Robshaw?

  15. I think SL and team of coaches have some fantastic options and this poses problems for Gats & Co as they could be dealing with the relative unknown. For the returners, the only person I would certainly give a place to is Lawes. He works well with TP and between them, they provide so much in going forward but their defence is awesome. I think that Lawes will bring an extra dynamic in the line-out too that’s been missing in these games. I really want to see Morgan start and Dickson – Dowson on the bench as he can cover for the flankers too plus Botha. Back line will start the same but TF, Tuilagi, Youngs on the bench to come in (depending on the circumstances) at around 50mins. Brown, Turner Hall and Parling to return to clubs.

    Depending on the performance, if things aren’t going too well, I would bring on Flood early on at about 35 mins. This coaching team is still trying out their options to find the best combinations and this is their first opportunity. They must be conscious that Ashton and Strettle aren’t really being utilised and Flood could exploit any gaps in the Wales defensive line.

    This is so exciting and I really hope that England show that the first two wins aren’t just ‘lucky’, despite what the pundits are saying. I am sure that the Wales camp don’t see it this way either – this could be a nail-biter!

  16. I think it’s a shame that almost everyone is writing Hodgson off, when really the only reason he hasn’t been able to get the back line moving is because Youngs has been so poor. Start with Dickson and Morgan, and Hodgson will have much better options, giving Farrell and Barritt more time to create a space for the back three.

    1. I agree Dazza and anyway, SL wouldn’t just drop the guy to the bench like the previous regimes. This is a different culture and SL is hoping that Hodgson rises to the pressure not only for the match against such an in-form team but also the competition within. Anyway, who would want to drop one of the guys who’s basically kept us in this competition?

      SL is trying to build confidence within a team and depth that Gats has achieved at Wales so that anyone can step up to the main team and just slot in. I wouldn’t be surprised if Youngs starts and Morgan is the main change. He brings so much more stability in the back row which may give Youngs that quick ball……who knows!

      1. You could be spot on Clare. I’m criticising Youngs, but it could be that the ball is not being secured at the base, and Youngs can’t get the ball out quickly.

        But I do think Morgan should be starting against Wales. Not only because he has played excellently when he’s come on, but because he plays with or against most of the Welsh team every week, and that inside knowledge could prove to be vital on the pitch.

    2. It would be extremely harsh to drop Hodgeson, but I feel this is the test for lancaster can he be ruthless. If we agree that Tuilagi has to come in, then someone in the midfield drops out. If you drop Farrell, Hodgeson will have to do the kicking duties – do we want to go there again. If you drop Barritt we lose our defense captain, and neither farrel or Tuliagi, I feel, could lead/ organise the defence. Sticking with the same line up at 10/12/13 with flood and Manu on the bench is the easiest option, but will they break down Wales? For me barritt has to stay with Tuilagi at 13, leaving Flood, Farrell and Hodgeson to fight out the 2 fly half berths.

  17. Charlie has been solid and unless Flood plays an absolute blinder this weekend I can’t see Lancaster replacing.

  18. Clare, I’d like to see Brown retained on the bench. Foden has been no great shakes so far and is definitely not living up to his previous club form

    Personally, I’d like to see Brown bought on in the second half. He has a howitzer of a boot if its needed, is an excellent counter-attacker and, in my view, is more physical than Foden – which may be needed against a massive Welsh back-line

  19. Great Article. Agree with the changes suggested. Would however like to see both Farrel and Flood on giving two options as first receiver. Owen I think is going to definately be the England first choice 10 sooner rather than later. So Mature for such a young lad and ridiculously confident. Go England!!

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