Stuart Lancaster has made no secret of his intention to treat England’s warm-up matches for the World Cup as though they are full-on Tests. Given the seemingly infinite combinations and permutations that injury has forced upon him over the past 12 months, the head coach knows that what is needed is to work out who his first XV are and give them some game time together.
Twelve months ago, Owen Farrell owned England’s No 10 shirt. Not any more. No one knows exactly what is going on in Lancaster’s head now, nor on the training pitch as this lengthy, three-month preparation camp wears on and on. But such were the displays from George Ford, still only 22 years old, throughout the Six Nations, that no one is surprised that he has been moved back into the starting line-up for Saturday’s match against France in Paris. But Ford himself is not being complacent, and he means it.
“I don’t feel like that, like the shirt is mine to lose,” he says. “I don’t see it like that at all. It’s a very competitive position. There are brilliant players. Owen’s been brilliant over the past three or four years. He finished the season strongly. He’s a brilliant guy to be around. No decisions have been made. Everyone in the squad knows that.”
When Ford receives the ball from Ben Youngs at the Stade de France tonight, standing outside him will be Luther Burrell and Jonathan Joseph. This is the combination he is used to and who, for the most part, led the charge that brought England agonisingly close to winning the Six Nations this year.
They are also the positions still the most shrouded in uncertainty. If Ford had dared to imagine himself starting England’s World Cup opener against Fiji next month, he would almost certainly have imagined seeing the giant frame of Manu Tuilagi each time he glanced sideways and considered his options. That is not to be. Joseph, surely, has done enough. But whither Brad Barritt? Sam Burgess? Or even Farrell himself?
“We’re all professionals,” is as much as Ford will concede. “The backs in the squad are all brilliant players. Whoever is out there, I’m sure they will go out and do their best. There’ll always be uncertainty. It will always be that way coming into an international set-up. It will always be a little different from that point of view. ”
He’s not quite right. Historically, the teams that win are the ones that pick themselves. Competition for places is an important thing, but there can be no denying England’s favoured XV should all have a near unshakeable grip on their shirts by now. Even though he will not admit it, most are of the view that Ford has.
However, knowing your place in the team is something that might be taken from you, rather than something you must win, is a difficult challenge for a man so young and relatively inexperienced – he has 11 caps. “The worst thing you could do is waste a session,” Ford says. “You’ve got to make sure you don’t do that. Just approach each training session as it comes, do your best, and try to become a better player. You don’t want to look any further. We all understand it’s a tough camp. But I think that’s great for us.”
Despite the downtime, it is “the most exciting time of our careers, a home World Cup,” and he is not in any doubt about the threats England face, with a resurgent Australia and a dangerous Wales team who must be overcome just for the hosts to emerge from the group stage.
“You can’t call yourself a successful team,” he says. “Not if you get knocked out of a home World Cup.”
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