In the long build-up to the only Rugby World Cup England have ever won, in 2003, the first-choice XV had been all but set in stone for a year or more. The team knew its capabilities and knew that something would have to have gone wrong for anyone to be capable of beating them.
Tonight against France at Twickenham, with three matches left to play before the start of a home World Cup, England’s most talked about player finally makes his debut. Sam Burgess, the 26-year-old rugby league convert for whom many feel this World Cup has come too soon, will start the match at inside centre alongside the also uncapped Henry Slade, in the midst of much debate over which is his best position.
It is a debate understood well by Andy Farrell, a dual code player himself and now a member of the England coaching team. “I played all sorts of positions in league, three in union, and you can only be what you can be,” he said. “It is up to the coaches to see how that best fits. Sam can’t change himself, all he can do is be himself. From what we have seen he is very comfortable in our system. He has to make sure that whatever has made him the player that got him to this situation, that he is able to do that out there. He’ll be able to do that from the positions that we put him in.”
The coach, Stuart Lancaster, has said England will approach these matches like full Test matches, and will play in the way he hopes to win the World Cup. The horrific run of injuries England had over the last year mean that, rather than testing new players, it is more urgent that his first-choice XV have as much game time together as possible.
“There will be some tired boys out there, but we want to play a fast, high-tempo game,” said Farrell. “We want to make sure we are in control of the pace. It’s a first game, it won’t be perfect, but we are still expecting a good performance. We want to stamp some authority on the way we want to play. It will be about decisions made along the way.”
This new partnership in the centre has only been made possible by the suspension of Manu Tuilagi, over the assault of a police officer earlier this year. How Burgess and Slade perform tonight is likely to have a huge bearing on their chances come next month.
“These two guys are right on song in terms of the systems. They know that inside out and are combining very well. The boys are excited, they know what’s around the corner. The overriding feeling I get from this week is that they’re glad it’s come around. They’ve been on fire for a few weeks now and they need to know they can convert that to the Test arena.
“This is new ground for a lot of our players. It’s the first World Cup for a lot of them and to have a full-blown Test match as your first pre-season game is a big ask in itself.”Reuse content