The season of World Cup selection speculation is almost over, and for a pair of Bath players straining to be in England’s squad when it is announced before the end of this week, two Twickenham matches that bookended the summer have emphasised the ebb and flow of trying to impress the head coach, Stuart Lancaster.
Sam Burgess went from playing as a blindside flanker in the Premiership final at the end of May to reappearing at Twickenham eight days ago in a curate’s egg of a Test debut at inside-centre against France. The code-crosser from rugby league tackled hard but drew a slamming rebuke in TV commentary from a centre past-master, Jerry Guscott, for ruining an England attack by falling out of position.
Meanwhile, on England’s right wing, the 21-year-old Anthony Watson surely nailed down his place among the World Cup 31 with two coruscating tries on the ground where in that final in May he had been clattered early by a high tackle and staggered off the field with no chance to make an impression.
No one has seen more of these differing bids by Watson and Burgess to be picked for their country than George Ford, the Bath and England fly-half. Though cautiously careful not to rate Burgess’s chances as any higher than those of the other inside-centre candidates – Brad Barritt, Billy Twelvetrees, Luther Burrell and Henry Slade – Ford picked out communication as a talent that may have been missed by observers either wowed or unimpressed by the more obvious attributes of the one-time rugby league Bradford Bulls and South Sydney Rabbitohs prop and loose-forward.
“Sam gave the [England] team a massive lift with a couple of big hits,” said Ford. “He gets the fans and the atmosphere going, and he does it because that’s what he brings – he loves the physicality side of things, he sees it as a battle when he is carrying the ball, and as a tackler he wants to win that battle every time. But if you look at it closely, the best thing he does is he is constantly talking to those around him, constantly giving energy.
“He is brilliant at going up to people, having small-talk chats and getting people ready for that next play. He takes the game play by play, and that comes from all his experiences in the NRL [with the Rabbitohs]. He’s had plenty of big enough games in league.”
Put simply by Ford, the 26-year-old Burgess has an “every-time mentality”, whether it is on the pitch or in the gym. As to the newbie’s chronic lack of time spent in union’s No 12 jersey, Ford countered: “What you need to understand with Sam is that when he runs his lines he is that good at the timing and at the tempo of it all that he is a genuine option all the time.
“The defenders he attracts to him can often open up space for the people elsewhere. The one game I played with him at inside-centre was against Wasps [for Bath at the Rec]. We gave him the ball on first phase – it must have been three, four or five times – and he got over the gain line every time for us. In the Premiership final [as a flanker] I thought he was outstanding, so it’s just a matter of getting him game time.”
The irony in that statement is that Lancaster has predicted England’s line-up may barely change through the World Cup pool matches against Fiji, Wales and Australia. So anyone not picked for those could spend a long time holding tackle bags.
Burgess’s cool head appears to have been a contrast to Watson, who was not trusted by Lancaster when an England debut was in the offing early last year. The leggy former London Irishman eventually forced his way in during the November Tests and produced a try against the French of brilliantly nimble footwork in a tight space. Ford agreed it was reminiscent of a back-three genius of recent vintage, Jason Robinson, and revealed how Watson has shaken off a reputation for pre-match nerves.
“He was always going to play well because he’s a very talented rugby player,” Ford said. “But he’s upped the ante in terms of looking after his body, knowing the game and the opposition inside out, and getting himself in the right head-space. I think he’s matured massively from that side of things.”
Every Thursday after a match England present three awards in their team room: for breakdown decision-making; the most dominant “hit”; and an act deemed to be “above the call of duty”. Watson won the last-named one, for that try. There is a trophy for each, consisting of a single link from a Navy ship’s anchor chain, mounted on a plaque. It has moved on from the simple “best defender” of Clive Woodward’s day. “Your name goes on the wall too,” said Ford. “It’s pretty good. It makes it a bit more special.”Reuse content