It is difficult to know where to start when two teams take the field but only one of them is serious about playing, and even more testing when it comes to drawing firm conclusions. This alleged contest was so laughably one-sided, it was impossible to know if the Newcastle tight-head prop Kieran Brookes and the Exeter centre Henry Slade were really as good as they looked, or whether Danny Cipriani’s contribution at No 10 bore the mark of a master or the stamp of someone playing way below his class on a Sabbath stroll in the park.
The Barbarians were lamentable, at best. George Smith, the grand old Wallaby flanker, did his level best to blunt England’s high-octane attacking game with a courageous turnover here and there, but that was about the extent of it. Brad Thorn, the World Cup-winning All Black lock, finished the game – and, it seems, his long career – in the cooler, having been shown yellow for scrapping with Alex Waller on the floor, but the assault was not even quarter-hearted. If there had been any justice, the invitation side would have been carded en bloc for earning money under false pretences.
Of course, Stuart Lancaster must take all available evidence into account as he finalises his selection for the forthcoming global tournament on home soil, so despite the soft nature of Sunday’s opposition, there were points of interest for the England coach. Brookes was the most significant of these, by some distance. The 19st-plus forward carried the ball strongly, made his considerable presence felt at the set-pieces and tackled magnificently – not least in hauling down the Toulon wing David Smith in an exposed area of the field to set up a try for Cipriani a couple of minutes before the interval.
England had already won the game twice over by then – the celebrity midfielder’s score took them to 45-5 – but Lancaster was still keen to hurl hosannas in his direction. “Brookes was the stand-out forward,” the coach said, “and I think he’ll get better and better over the course of our World Cup camp. If we can build on his ball-handling ability and scrummaging power by working on his fitness and conditioning, he’ll be a huge prospect for us. In fact, I was very impressed that he lasted an hour at that pace.”
Among those outside the current England party, the Wasps wing Christian Wade bagged himself a hat-trick in a characteristically eye-catching performance. Yet you could see precisely why Lancaster still considers him surplus to red-rose requirements: his size, or lack of it, makes him easy prey for bigger opponents, particularly in the air, and the odd rush of blood renders him a high-risk option at the top level.
Talking of which, Owen Farrell will not pay a price for his overcooked tackle on Anthony Watson during the Premiership final between Saracens and Bath. Much to Lancaster’s relief, the Lions outside-half has not been cited for the hit that forced his England colleague off the field in the opening minutes. Instead, he has been “punished” with a retrospective yellow card – the rugby equivalent of a conditional discharge.
“I was waiting for the outcome,” acknowledged Lancaster, who has recently felt obliged to ditch two errant souls – the centre Manu Tuilagi and the hooker Dylan Hartley – from his World Cup plans. “I thought at the time that it was probably a yellow-card offence, but you never know until things are confirmed. Still, there are three games to go before the World Cup and anything could happen.”
England may have been able to count their chickens on Sunday, but their coach has no such luxury.
Scorers: England XV – Tries Wade 3, Cipriani 2, Yarde, Slater, Clifford, Slade, Beaumont. Conversions Cipriani 10. Penalty Cipriani.Reuse content