Injuries beginning to cripple Lancaster’s new England

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

29 thoughts on “Injuries beginning to cripple Lancaster’s new England

  1. I think if you are going for inexperienced players such as Trinder, Farrell and Barritt then Hodgson may be the right balance with Flood being injured.

    Taking Farrell, Barritt and Trinder into the environment of the Calcutta Cup is either insane or brave and i’m leaning towards the former.

  2. Agree Andy. If memory serves me correctly, I think it was when Gatland first started in 2005 with only a few weeks to prepare for the 6 nations, that he selected a whole bunch of Ospreys en bloc, on the basis that a settled unit was the best policy until he’d had more opportunity to assess everyone individually in that international environment.

    Hodgson-Farrell-Barritt would together offer that stability and familiarity that I think would be invaluable to a new coaching set-up. OK, Hodgson would be simply a stop-gap for this tournament only, but with your first choice out injured why not bring in someone with proper Test match experience. A safe pair of hands as it were.

    I actually think this whole shit defence reputation Hodgson has is bollocks. Ma’a Nonu mows down world-class defenders as easily as if they were septuagenarians at a zebra crossing. Even if you accept that in his previous England carnation his tackling showed room for improvement I think he has done exactly that. His main failing in my opinion was that his arse used to fall out when he was taking important kicks at goal. Doesn’t matter, young Owen Farrell takes that responsibility for Sarries and always looks incredibly composed. I’m sure pressure kicks in Test match offer a whole new challenge, but I reckon Farrell’s go t the minerals.

  3. Having said that, I would very much like to see at least one of Trinder, Twelvetrees, Ford et al on the bench. Bring at least one of these guys on after about 50′, regardless of the score. If ever there was a perfect opportunity to blood the youngsters, this must surely be the time.

  4. Jordan Turner-Hall would be an option as well. He normally plays inside centre but could play there with Barritt outside him

    Both are big lumps and the defence would not be lacking but the pair of them are not exactly slouches in attack either. It wouldn’t be high on subtlety but i reckon it would be enough to a job on a Scottish mid-field

    I think England will need the experience of Hodgson though. His defence is suprisingly better since he joined Saracens and if Farrell takes the kicks then the pressure is off him somewhat. That will allow him to do what he does best and get the back-line moving

    And to throw another name into the mix – what about Twelvetrees?

  5. Personally i don’t hold much weight in experience, but with Flood now out, along with Tuilagi, plus retirements/players being dropped etc etc, our backline is looking somewhat unsettled. Thats not neccesarily a bad thing, though in my mind we only have a few choices to resolve said problem:

    1. Reinstate Hodgson, and have a sarries backline of Hodgson, Barritt, Farrell (10,12,13).
    2. Start Farrell at 10, and have Barritt at 12 + someone else at 13. Probably Twelvetress or Trinder.
    3. Bring in Ford at 10, with Barritt at 12 and Farrell at 13.

    For me, the biggest question is, where do we want to play Farrell permanently? 10 or 13? Answering this question would then decide which option to go with. I know people keep saying about playing him at 12 – but he very rarely plays 12 for Sarries and so it’d be stupid to play him there at international, and on debut.

    1. Ford at 10 is crazy talk, the kid has barely played Premiership rugby. Looking ahead, I’d either want to see a midfield of Flood/Farrell/Tuilagi or Farrell/Barritt/Tuilagi or Joseph. Both combinations need to be tried out before a decision can be made.

  6. Take the technical out of it will you, we have a load of descent young players coming through and a world cup in 2015, screw the Six Nations, i believe we should sacrifice the next few in the aim of building a team for the future. Yes you have to keep some old blood but lets give the youth a chance even if we lose the fact is you still identify good talent as much as when your on the backfoot as the frontfoot. Fact is i would leave hodgson out and find the next lot of 10’s for 2015 as this is the position that controls the game. England have gone backwards for years its now time to move forward and create a 3 year plan.

  7. I tend to agree with Mark about this. In order to build a team for the next World Cup, we need to sacrifice at least one season to blooding some players. Farrell, Burns, Clegg or Ford are just a few fly halves who deserve a shot. Ford is the least experienced at the moment, but in a couple of years time who knows. Farrell is currently the in form player, but he’s been better at 13 than at 10 recently. Even if you start with Farrell at 10, you still need cover on the bench. For a couple of games I would start with Hodgson, and have Farrell at 13 outside of Twelvetrees. Much as I like Barritt, I think Twelvetrees offers more going forward. The other option is Barkley at 10, or 12? Just don’t select Banaram!

    As for the second row, I thought Palmer was no longer legible as he still plays in France? Attwood, Botha, Robson, are all decent option, and dare I say it but Borthwick has been on good form for Sarries lately.

    1. I think we’re all agreed on Banahan!

      Problem with cutting him though is you are only left with Tuilagi as the sole recognised centre from the Rugby World Cup, and he’s not even fit.

      Bringing in Barritt, Turner-Hall and one other in Trinder/Twelvetrees is a lot of inexperience. But, sod it. This Six Nations is not about success.

      (I’ll say it in brackets, but don’t be too surprised if Hape is still in the squad)

  8. There are still a few options here. Farrell, Burns, Clegg are the obvious ones besides Hodgson. Of course you could play Barkley at 10, and Twelvetrees had a good stint at 10 for Leicester. The question is if you play Farrell at 10, who do you play at 13? Could England be really brave and throw Joel Tompkins straight into an England shirt?

    1. Fine line between bravery and idiocy.

      Clegg and Burns aren’t good enough yet. I’m more than happy to have Hodgson in there given how well those three are working together at Saracens.

      If one of Tuilagi or Joseph were fit there would be no issue, because Farrell would play 10.

      1. Agreed you cant just throw someone in there because they ‘might be good in a few years’.

        I still believe in picking on form. So that means (now Floods out) that its Hodgson or Farrell at 10.

        Barritt or Twelvetrees at 12 and someone to fill in till Manu is back at 13.

          1. Possibly Trinder its a tough one. I think it will probably be all sarries midfield.

            But i think Flood, Barrit, Tuilagi is the midfield to take England forward when fit.

  9. I’m all for blooding young players, but I do think that they need some old heads around them to help them deal with the increased pressure that is international rugby. The Calcutta match is always a tricky one as the Scots generally like to break up the play and create chaos on the pitch. It does need some experience to counter this.

    I also think that due to injuries,etc we are in a position of trying to pick a team to win rather than just looking to the future (although we are also doing this). It is a fine balance! I would therefore go for the Sarries trio. Leave the development of other players to a day when some of the more experienced players return to help them along.

  10. I agree with having some old heads in the team although the so called “old heads” made a mockery of the world cup, the issue is that the media report on all the issues with injuries etc putting immediate emphasis on the Six Nations and pressure on England when this and possibly the next Six Nations are not what we should be targeting.

    And so what if we lose the Calcutta cup it would be nice to lift the world cup and a few years time, its all about sacrifice. Woodward did not have a good start, Graeme Henry had a average start with NZ and both went on to win the World Cup. I for one hope we take a young team to the Six Nations and if we lose we lose but we ,must learn and grow and ignore the press and have a plan for the future.

    1. You seem to be suggesting we should just start the players with potential, they would get ripped apart and learn nothing because they’d get destroyed by the media and never get picked again.

      Best player starts. If its close between 2 pick the player with the most potential for the future. I’m a firm believer in the ‘success breeds success’.

  11. I have some sympathy for Mark’s view here – after all some 6 or 7 of the players involved in the 1998 “Tour from Hell” went onto form a part of the 2003 RWC winning squad

    1. However, they suffered the tour from hell initially and it took some of them a long time to recover. Some never did! To be fair I’m not calling for a team of old farts as per RWC, but a sprinkling of experienced players to help guide the young ones through. It should make their transition to internationals faster.

  12. Personally I would like to see Lancaster pick a young team, regardless of injuries, and not worry about losing a few matches. Lancaster knows which young players can step up and perform because he’s coached most of them in the Saxons. I would be tempted to play Farrell, Barritt and Trinder, and then when Tuilagi is fully fit, play him instead of Trinder. The big dilemma is who do you have on the bench to cover 10?

  13. I’m with Mark, Paolo, Dazza and others – long term is what really matters. However, the guy picking the team will be more focused on near term results, unfortunately. Lancaster has this short window to demonstrate that he is worthy of the permanent role (many seem to think that Mallett is already a done deal) so will surely go for wins now. With that in mind, I can’t see any way he doesn’t start Hodgson at 10. Would be great to see some of the younger contenders given a go at 12 and 13 though.

  14. I personnally would rather have a Leicester midfield of Flood, Allen, Tuillagi or Flood, Twelvetrees, Tuillagi than the Saracens midfield. Though ideally I’d go for Flood, Farrell, Tuillagi. With Flood, Tuillagi and Joeseph injured I’d likely take Farrell, Twelvetrees, and Armitage

    The Saracens midfield has rarely set the Aviva alight, they grind out games based on having a very good pack and playing the percentages well. Only if Lancaster wants to adopt a very limited gameplan should he even be considering picking the Saracens midfield… And to be honest I don’t think England have the kind of pack to make that gameplan work anyway.

    Barritt is solid but entirely unspectacular, while he works well as a bosh merchant alongside Farrell and Hodgeson he lacks guile has average hands and doesn’t have the power or pace of a Tuillagi or even a Banahan. Farrell is a good distributor, kicker and defender but I’ve never seen him do much with the ball in hand and Hodgeson is a tried and tested failure at international level.

  15. Just putting it out there, i’d be very tempted to hand Steve Borthwick a recall.

    He’s been outstanding this year. And i think it sends a good message that players will be picked on form alone, not reputation, past experiences, etc etc.

    1. I’m almost inclined to agree. He’s been the elephant in the room for most of the season. Playing well but everyone trying to ignore him! While Lawes was fit everyone was saying he had to play as he is the future. Not sure Attwood has played that well since joining Bath, although they are struggling as a team, which doesn’t help. Interesting to see where Lancaster goes with his selection! I don’t think Borthwick and Hodgson are long term answers but I still think they have a role to play in the transitional period.

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