RWC 2015: England vs Wales - Stuart Lancaster risks reputation with Sam Burgess gamble

Dropping George Ford and not picking Luther Burrell could haunt England head coach if new midfield line-up fails to fire against Wales

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There were a number of telling moments when Warren Gatland, the head coach of Wales, named his 31 chosen ones for the World Cup at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff late last month. He selected only two hookers rather than three, picked virtually every lock forward in the country rather than restricting himself to the usual quartet and decided there could be no room for Ross Moriarty, the latest tough nut to emerge from a whole family of hard cases. Not that the last decision held for long. Moriarty is in the squad after all, thanks to injuries elsewhere.

But the really striking thing about Gatland that day was his reaction to a selection call by England, the host nation and one of the teams Wales must beat if they are to find their way out of the most difficult pool in the 28-year history of World Cup rugby and into the quarter-finals. “They’ve left out Luther Burrell?” he asked, as though he could not quite believe his luck. “He’s given us all the hassle we can handle over the last couple of years. I’m glad to see the back of him.” And with that, he cracked the broadest of smiles and punched the air in glee.

The consequences of the last-minute decision by the red-rose head coach, Stuart Lancaster, to jettison Burrell in favour of two one-cap wonders – both Henry Slade, the Exeter wunderkind, and Sam Burgess, the gnarled refugee from rugby league land, made their international debuts in the warm-up Test with France at Twickenham a few days before the squad announcement – are now laid bare. If the hints and leaks surrounding England’s revamped midfield combination are accurate, we can deduce that Lancaster does not fully trust the former, but is prepared to gamble his reputation on the latter.


Lancaster could not have foreseen the orthopaedic hassle that seems certain to deny him the services of the Bath player Jonathan Joseph for Saturday’s hugely significant confrontation with Wales: he could not have anticipated squaring up to the weapons-grade Red Dragon centre partnership of Jamie Roberts and Scott Williams without the only career No 13 available. But he could have reacted differently. He could have kept faith with George Ford at outside-half, continued to run Brad Barritt in his optimum position of inside centre and given the gifted Slade a chance in the outside role.

Instead, he is reported to have dropped Ford: a rank injustice, given that the most imaginative playmaker in the party came out honours even from the opening World Cup match with Fiji despite a wholly inadequate service from the scrum-half Ben Youngs, who is a hot tip to hold his place. Those among the cognoscenti who have long suspected that England were one dodgy performance away from narrowing their focus and restoring Owen Farrell to the No 10 role – a tougher specimen than Ford, but more predictable and conservative in approach – were bang on the money.

Burgess, even more of a stranger to the outside-centre position than he is to rugby union in general, could not be picked anywhere but at No 12, hence the move to shift Barritt into a position just a little too exposed for his skill set. It is a strong unit, without question: Farrell loses precious few fights – he even tends to win the ones that have nothing to do with him – while Burgess is every bit as rugged as his reputation suggests. As for Barritt, there is no braver, more dedicated defensive organiser in the European game.

But in terms of attacking threat, they are not exactly the All Blacks. Lancaster would be in a far happier place, with far more options available to him, had Burrell still been on hand: as recently as last year, the Yorkshireman tore up his fair share of Six Nations trees in the No 13 role outside Billy Twelvetrees of Gloucester; only last season, he moved to inside centre and worked productively with Joseph.

This new development puts Burgess squarely in the spotlight. When he first switched codes, joining Bath from the South Sydney Rabbitohs a little under a year ago, the West Country club picked him at centre as a means of fast-tracking the learning process. They figured, probably correctly, he would find it easier to understand the subtleties and intricacies of the union game from a position close to the action, but not absolutely in the thick of it. But – and this is a very big “but” – they quickly reached the conclusion that he was nothing more than a flanker wrapped up in a midfielder’s clothing. Well before the end of the domestic campaign, Slammin’ Sam was slamming away in the pack.

Now, he must shed his skin again and find a way of living with, and ultimately subduing, some very dangerous opponents in a contest that will be immeasurably hotter than any mere warm-up. It is fair to say that Burrell, almost as powerful and far more of a union animal, would have found it easier. On his own admission, Lancaster broke down in tears when he gave his protégé the news that he had missed out on a place in the elite squad. If things go wrong on Saturday night, the weeping will be uncontrollable.