It would not be unreasonable to suggest that apart from Ben Youngs, the two men that England could not afford to lose to injury before the Six Nations were Toby Flood and Manu Tuilagi. Yet as Stuart Lancaster prepares to name his EPS squad on Wednesday, ahead of England’s first training camp in Leeds on January 23rd, the blows keep landing on his plans.
Before getting into the permutations of England’s midfield, it’s worth stressing that not all is in disarray. Up front, England’s only major injury concern is Courtney Lawes, with one of Dave Attwood or George Robson likely to replace him alongside Tom Palmer. There is even the option of moving Tom Croft from the blindside into the second row, in order to accomodate both Chris Robshaw and Tom Wood in the back row alongside Ben Morgan.
In the backs though are where the problems lie. Whereas Tuilagi’s injury could have been dealt with, Flood’s means that England’s changes truly will be radical. Of the three fly-half options that England took to New Zealand for the Rugby World Cup, Jonny Wilkinson has retired, Flood is ruled out, whilst make-shift third choice Richard Wigglesworth is out for the season. Without Tuilagi, England would have opted for Flood at fly-half, with Farrell outside him at inside centre and Brad Barritt down the 13 channel. Now that Flood will miss the first two fixtures, England have a tough decision to make.
Either they recreate the Saracens combination of Charlie Hodgson, Barritt and Farrell in the white of England, or they re-configure. Bringing back Hodgson immediately creates flashbacks to him being trampled by Ma’a Nonu in Auckland three years ago, his defensive 10 channel an open passage for attackers. His defence has improved since that dark day, no more so than at Saracens where he moved this summer. Few have a better passing game, but at 31 he is hardly the man for the future.
Take Hodgson out of the equation, and the only fly-half left is Farrell. Moving him to 10 leaves England short of a centre, with Barritt moving infield to inside centre. Tuilagi at 13 would be the ideal combination, but his injury leaves a lot of doubt. If fit, Jonathan Joseph of London Irish might well have come in to fill the gap. Adored by many pundits including Will Greenwood and Austin Healey, the balance between Barritt’s grunt along with Joseph’s hands and lines seems ideal.
Neither Tuilagi or Joseph are available however, so does Lancaster gamble on the youth of Henry Trinder, in fine form for Gloucester, or revert back to the unsuccessful Matt Banahan? England need to have the penetration in midfield they lacked at the World Cup, yet not leave themselves short defensively. On the flip side, they need to control the midfield physically, but without sacrificing their creativity. A tough conundrum faces Stuart Lancaster and Andy Farrell. It’s now where they will earn their keep.
by Ben Coles