Brad Barritt, the man who runs England’s defensive system to great effect but rarely threatens to run opposition back divisions off their feet, has held his place in the starting line-up for this Saturday’s meeting with Australia at Twickenham – the national team’s last chance to land a solid blow on a major southern hemisphere power before next year’s home World Cup.
The Saracens centre, asked to play in the outside position throughout this autumn series to accommodate “footballing” midfielders in Kyle Eastmond and Owen Farrell, had been under pressure from Luther Burrell of Northampton, who wore the No 13 shirt with distinction during the Six Nations and is fit again after injury. But Burrell was sent back to his club and will face London Welsh rather than the Wallabies. An easier prospect, to be sure.
While Stuart Lancaster, the head coach, opted to stand by the 23 players who saw off Samoa four days ago, there is likely to be some tinkering. Barritt may well find himself with a third partner in as many games, with Billy Twelvetrees of Gloucester making a strong case to be picked ahead of Farrell, while two Northampton forwards, the hooker Dylan Hartley and the flanker Tom Wood, are pressing hard for recalls after a spell of bench duty.
Confronted by a Wallaby back division armed with overwhelming firepower, the emphasis this weekend will be on playing the game in the right areas rather than the weird ones occasionally favoured by the England tacticians behind the scrum. Territorial management has been one of the major failings of the autumn campaign to date – even the new outside-half George Ford, widely lauded for his performance against Samoa, managed to lose his bearings during a scrappy first 40 minutes – and the pack, highly effective for the most part, are on the brink of a sense of humour failure.
“Do I climb the walls at times? Yes, when we’re not playing to our potential,” said Graham Rowntree, the red-rose forwards coach. “We can’t hide away from the fact that we haven’t always shown consistency of performance in certain areas.” By which he meant positional precision. Forward units good enough to scrummage a penalty try out of the All Blacks and score twice from driving mauls against the Springboks are patently match-winning weapons, provided the ball is put in front of them.
Not that Rowntree believes the Australians, by some distance the weakest of the leading southern hemisphere triumvirate in the grunt-and-groan department, will allow England a free ride. “They’re not the pushovers a lot of people would have you believe,” he argued. “They’re smart, they’re clever tactically and they’re used to problem-solving. They set you up for things and then do something completely different. We’ll need to have all our bases covered, because I don’t trust them.”
Along with the rest of the England hierarchy, Rowntree must have been interested to hear that Sam Burgess, the latest rugby league maestro to try his hand at union, was under consideration for a place on the bench – and a possible debut – in Friday’s important Premiership match between Bath and Harlequins at the Recreation Ground. Burgess has started full-contact training with the West Country club after recovering from severe facial injuries suffered during his Grand Final farewell to the 13-man code in Australia early last month.Reuse content