This is not obviously a good time to be balancing one rugby philosophy against another: with the World Cup less than eight months away and a profoundly difficult Six Nations opener in Wales a little over a fortnight distant, it is a moment for thinking through the fine detail rather than arguing over the great scheme of things.
But when the England coach, Stuart Lancaster, and his fellow strategists met on Monday ahead of Wednesday’s formal squad announcement, there was surely as much discussion of the macro as there was about the micro.
By winning in Toulouse in the mesmerising way they did on Sunday afternoon, Bath did their level best to reduce weeks of red-rose planning to so much dust and debris. Before kick-off in that European Champions Cup contest at Stade Ernest- Wallon, the indications were that neither of the West Country club’s senior centres would be required for England’s latest venture across the Severn Bridge. Eighty minutes later, they had forced their way as a double act into the selectorial debate, albeit at a very late stage.
The word on the street last week was that Lancaster, no doubt enthusiastically encouraged by the devoutly anti-romantic assistant coach Andy Farrell, had plumped for a centre combination of Brad Barritt and Luther Burrell – a Saracens-Northampton pairing boasting the defensive capability and overt physicality to compete with the two Welsh Test Lions, Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies, on their own terms. The message seemed to be clear: “To hell with this attacking lark. We may not score many tries, but you’ll score even fewer.”
That was before Kyle Eastmond and Jonathan Joseph ripped up Toulouse in inspiring the bonus-point victory that kept Bath in the northern hemisphere’s elite club tournament. Armed as they were by George Ford, the current England outside-half and a hot favourite to start at No 10 against Wales, there is now a popular movement in support of playing the entire Recreation Ground midfield unit at the Millennium Stadium.
Eastmond and Joseph were in the red-rose mix for last November’s four-match international series at Twickenham, although both had their frustrations: Eastmond played against New Zealand and South Africa before making way, first for Owen Farrell and then for Billy Twelvetrees; Joseph failed to set foot on the field at all. Even though they had been tearing up trees together at the start of the club campaign, the feeling was that, in defensive terms at Test level, they were less a barricade than an open door.
That may still be the feeling among the England selectors when push comes to shove: it may be that Joseph, in particular, will be asked to show the best of himself for the second-string Saxons against the Irish Wolfhounds in Cork on Friday week, outside another of his club-mates, Sam Burgess – which is not quite the same thing as doing it outside Eastmond. But Joseph’s broken-field running in Toulouse, almost Guscottian in its quality, at least merited a mention from Lancaster and company. As the All Blacks like to say: defence is not always the best form of defence. Sometimes, attack does it better.
Warren Gatland, the Wales coach, has precious few quandaries by comparison: when he names his squad today, there will be next to no surprises. Cardiff Blues’ Gareth Anscombe, the New Zealander with Red Dragon qualification, is confidently expected to be named as one of the outside-halves, quite possibly at the expense of the lavishly gifted but frequently marginalised James Hook, who is now playing at Gloucester.
Meanwhile, the well-resourced Bristol club have lured the hard-edged hooker Marc Jones away from Sale – a striking piece of business by a second-tier side. Desperate for promotion to the Premiership this term, Bristol will welcome Jones at the end of the current campaign.Reuse content