Stuart Lancaster generally prefers to deal with Warren Gatland’s verbal “grenades” by turning a deaf ear. “My first priority is this weekend’s match with Ireland and my second priority is the World Cup opener against Fiji,” the England coach said. “We don’t play Wales until 26 September and I have plenty to think about before that happens.”
But amid all the “one match at a time” stuff, Lancaster revealed a profound unwillingness to be pushed around on the mind games front. Responding to the ever-provocative Wales coach’s assertion that England have yet to decide quite how they want to play – hardly a ringing endorsement of their long-term planning, 16 days shy of the global gathering – the red-rose coach stood his ground. “I don’t recognise that,” he commented, icily.
Yet Gatland, buoyed by his team’s high-value victory over the Irish in Dublin on Saturday, pressed some sensitive buttons in publicly evaluating England’s position ahead of the hugely significant contest between the age-old rivals at Twickenham in a little over three weeks’ time, and it is abundantly clear that Lancaster and his back-room colleagues are as worried about the line-out as their baiter-in-chief suggested.
Geoff Parling, by some distance the most effective line-out caller to play Test rugby for England since the former national captain Steve Borthwick was drummed out in jaw-droppingly charmless fashion back in 2010, returns to the pack for Saturday’s final warm-up game as one of five changes to the side that started against – and were ripped up by – the French in Paris late last month. As things stand, the Exeter-bound lock will be playing for a starting place against Fiji on World Cup opening night.
“Yes, I see Geoff as our No 1 caller,” Lancaster said after pairing him with Courtney Lawes against the Irish, adding that Parling’s “general leadership” was playing a significant part in his thinking vis-à-vis the engine room of the scrum. In other words, Parling is one dominant set-piece performance away from breaking back into the first-choice XV.
Lancaster has other options in the second-row department: Joe Launchbury of Wasps, his key forward in the 2014 Six Nations, is back from neck surgery and will be on the bench on Saturday, while George Kruis of Saracens is increasingly highly regarded by the hierarchy. “Geoff is more of a Lawes than a Launchbury,” the coach said, “and the selection for Fiji has still to play itself out. Joe is not happy being on the bench.
“I’d also say that George has a good level of expertise in line-out terms, as you’d expect from someone who spent five years being coached by Steve Borthwick at Saracens. We’re talking about a big part of our game here and the balance needs to be correct.”
The other changes were more predictable: the Saracens midfielder Brad Barritt, in dire need of a game after a frustrating run of fitness problems, links up with Jonathan Joseph at centre, while another player who has had his fill of orthopaedic frustration, the Gloucester No 8 Ben Morgan, has been handed a second warm-up run in the back row. Anthony Watson of Bath, such a star turn in the first preparatory outing against France at Twickenham, returns to the right wing, while Tom Wood of Northampton resumes on the blind-side flank.
With Jamie George, the young Saracens front-rower, certain to win a second cap off the bench, talk turned to the hooker issues currently bubbling away under the World Cup surface. Having ditched his senior No 2, the errant Dylan Hartley, for disciplinary reasons, Lancaster still picked three hookers on the grounds that anything less could leave England in grave difficulties in the event of a last-minute injury ahead of a pool match. Meanwhile, their principal group rivals, Australia and Wales, will travel with only two acknowledged hookers.
“I certainly wouldn’t change what we’ve done,” the coach said. “None of our props can cover the hooker position, so we’ve covered all the key areas and taken no risks.”
Ireland, meanwhile, confirmed their 31-man party for the tournament, with the head coach, Joe Schmidt, ditching two high-achieving backs: the Ulster wing Andrew Trimble and the Leinster centre Gordon D’Arcy. In a twist on the hooker debate, Schmidt chose to gamble in the scrum-half position, selecting only Conor Murray of Munster and the Leinster No 9 Eoin Reddan, and asking the midfielder Ian Madigan to stand by in an emergency.
Cian Healy, the loose-head prop from Leinster, and the Munster back Keith Earls were both included despite fitness concerns, as was the inexperienced Ulster centre Darren Cave and the 22-year-old Leinster prop Tadhg Furlong, who made his debut in the green shirt against Wales last weekend.
Boys in green: Ireland World Cup squad
Props T Furlong, C Healy, J McGrath, M Ross (all Leinster), N White (Connacht).
Hookers R Best (Ulster), S Cronin, R Strauss (both Lein).
Locks I Henderson (Uls), P O’Connell (Toulon, capt), D Ryan (Munster), D Toner (Lein).
Back-rowers C Henry (Uls), J Heaslip, J Murphy, S O’Brien (all Lein), P O’Mahony (Munster).
Back three T Bowe (Uls), D Kearney, R Kearney (both Lein), S Zebo (Munster).
Centres D Cave, J Payne (both Uls), K Earls (Mun), L Fitzgerald (Lein), R Henshaw (Connacht).
Fly-halves P Jackson (Uls), I Madigan, J Sexton (both Lein).
Scrum-halves C Murray (Mun), E Reddan (Lein).
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