It wasn’t so long ago that Owen Farrell seemed the linchpin of the England side. Not only a world-class kicker but a ruthless leader way beyond his years. For those that argue Farrell Snr’s presence in the England coaching set-up means his son could never dropped, cast your minds back to 2012. Farrell was axed from the starting XV during the summer tour to South Africa and only played in that historic mauling of New Zealand because Toby Flood was injured.
The universal sense that Farrell was un-droppable was purely down to his attributes on the pitch. Since Jonny Wilkinson redefined the style of fly-halve play in this country, England coaches have tended to axe their No. 10’s for weak defence and poor goal kicking, perhaps why the likes of Danny Cipriani and Freddie Burns are out of favour whilst players such as Olly Barkley have been in the past. Steven Myler apart, Owen Farrell is the most similar to Wilkinson in terms of playing style (a few ‘feisty’ incidents aside) out of the current crop of English fly-halves. Farrell, like Wilkinson, likes to stand deep, doesn’t miss many kicks at goal and is would sooner chew his own foot off than miss a tackle.
Although I am happy that Farrell has finally been dropped this weekend, I still don’t quite understand Stuart Lancaster’s selections and, most worryingly, his seemingly muddled thinking behind the England backline. Prior to the Autumn Internationals, Lancaster stated he wanted players who were grafters not flash, so why then has he dropped Owen Farrell? Clearly because Owen Farrell is out of form but was Owen Farrell not out of form prior to the autumn series? Yes he was. In attempting to play a player low on confidence into form, against the best in the world, he’s only succeeded in whittling away further what on pitch chutzpah he had. To do so when he had plenty of other fit and confident outside half options available reflects poorly on Stuart Lancaster and his man management choices.
There is no doubt that ‘Little Faz’ is a terrific player when at the top of his game. He has been influential in Saracens’ steady rise in the last two seasons but having been injured and played only a matter of minutes this season he was thrown in at the deep end against the All Blacks. Lancaster might have looked across to his opposite number for a lesson in re-integration as Steve Hansen handled Dan Carter much better. Hanson used him from the bench against the USA, backed his in form understudies – leaving Carter out completely – against England before giving him a lengthier run out against the Scots. A perfect example of properly managing a player feeling their way back into Test rugby.
Part of Farrell’s failing this autumn has been his inability to ignite England’s backline. The dour Lancastrian is never going to be a Carlos Spencer or Matt Giteau but he has looked particularly static this November, often shovelling the ball on to poor Kyle Eastmond or a forward from a standing start. Yes his kicking was woeful against New Zealand and South Africa but it was his game management that was the biggest disappointment. In the 2014 Six Nations he looked assured, composed and happy, not only with his own game but with those outside him. Just get him back to Saracens, where he should have been three weeks ago, and let him have a run at 10 away from the coalface of world class opposition. I’d argue there’s little point in naming him on the bench this weekend.
The experiment of playing Farrell at 12 was clearly an attempt of finding one last last possible way of keeping Farrell in the side. Incidentally, Kyle Eastmond, who was supposedly unfit, started for Bath last weekend. The idea of playing Farrell at 12 is another sign of England’s unclear selection policy in the centres. The notion in this country is that we must have a ball playing 12, someone that can kick, pass and run the game. In England’s losses to NZ and SA, Eastmond was criticised for his lack of game management and kicking game. His opposite men in these two defeats were Sonny Bill Williams and Jean De Villiers, perhaps two of the weakest kicking inside centres in tier one rugby. England need to get out of their head what an ideal inside centre is and just pick the best of what we have in this country. Clearly, when fit, Manu Tuilagi plays at 13 but who will start inside him is far from clear. Personally I believe Eastmond has been completely hung out to dry by the England set-up of late, having to play outside an off colour Farrell and inside the blunt object that is Brad Barritt, meaning the former rugby league man was on a hiding to nothing.
I am confident that Farrell will return a better player and could well start in the Six Nations at some point, but the 10 shirt really is George Ford’s to lose. Ford was magnificent last season for Bath and has started this season on another planet but I do not envy him trying to spark a back-line that features Twelvetrees and Barritt in the centres.
This brings us back nicely to the question of what Stuart Lancaster is trying to achieve with the England back-line. He has nurtured one of the best packs in world rugby but his tenure as England coach has become blighted by a lack of a clear and consistent game plan. He seems very undecided on how England should play as an attacking force and his treatment of George Ford is yet another example of this. His greatest problem is that he doesn't seem to trust his judgement about the style of player he wants. Why play Eastmond, a creative player with someone so uneducated in attack such as Brad Barritt? You are doing the Bath man no favours. Whilst I am quick to jump on Lancaster, I do agree with a very valid point made by Brian Moore on TalkSport last Sunday. England’s main problem in the backs is that their options in certain positions play in a very different way. It means that replacements don’t automatically fit into the system. For example, New Zealand’s inside centres SBW, Fekitoa and Nonu all play in a similar style, as do Ryan Crotty and Conrad Smith in the 13 jumper. Compare this to Brad Barritt and Manu Tuilagi in the 13 jersey and Eastmond, Twelvetrees and Burrell at inside centre and the lack of continuity becomes apparent.
Lancaster has shown to be a man to trust certain players and give them time but with just 6 meaningful games before England face Fiji in the RWC, the England management badly need to decide who will play inside Manu. A problem that is not entirely easy to work out when the naturalised Samoan remains on the physio’s table. Throw the thorny issue of Sam Burgess into the mix and it’s clear Lancaster has some serious thinking to do.
Disagree with any of that? Let us know in the comments below old boy!