If Stuart Lancaster is the panic merchant his critics accuse him of being, he hides it well. There was a vague whiff of apprehension about the England head coach as he materialised in public to explain his decision to reconstruct the red-rose midfield just in time for the biggest match since the World Cup final four years ago, but nothing more. Anxiety? Hysteria? Old-fashioned dread? There was none of that stuff.
“I’m aware of the stakes and I understand the consequences,” the Cumbrian said as he was pressed on the high-risk elements of his team selection for Saturday’s World Cup pool game with Wales at Twickenham: the installation of the cross-code recruit Sam Burgess at inside centre, the shifting of the Saracens defensive kingpin Brad Barritt from No 12 to No 13 and, most controversially of all, the dropping of George Ford at outside-half and the promotion of Owen Farrell.
“An England-Wales game is a game like no other,” he continued. “With the added pressure you can add 10 per cent to the intensity and as this is a World Cup match, we’re probably talking more than that. Fifty per cent, perhaps. Maybe 100 per cent. But if you’re asking if I’m taking a gamble – if this selection has risk attached to it – I’d say that when I look down the team-sheet, I see players who are in form, and in whom I have complete confidence.
“Brad has performed the outside-centre role for us in previous matches and we know what we’re seeing from Sam in training. And it’s not as if I’ve replaced George with someone who is short on international experience. If that was the case, of course it would be a gamble. But I don’t consider picking an in-form, confident Owen Farrell to be risky. Anyway, we’ll find out whether it is or it isn’t when we play the game.”
Had he been shocked by the ferocity of the reaction? Insulted, even? Again, Lancaster was shoulder-shruggingly sanguine. “I haven’t been insulted at all,” he responded. “People are entitled to their opinion and it doesn’t surprise me that they express it because they care about an England team being successful. We do as well – we all want to be successful. What would be good is if people got behind the selection, whatever it is, but I appreciate there will always be a debate.”
Truth be told, things are not quite as straightforward as the coach made them out to be. He has acknowledged, albeit privately, that the choice of Burgess at this embryonic, almost ante-natal stage of an unlikely career in international union is by some distance his most hazardous exercise in speculation. What is more, Burgess would almost certainly not have been picked in the starting line-up had Jonathan Joseph, the Bath outside centre, not damaged his pectoral muscle during the opening-night victory over Fiji a week ago. (Joseph is not out of the tournament, but he may be a fortnight away from playing again).
It is also fair to say that the midfield recasting, some of it enforced and some of it voluntary, prevented Lancaster from selecting the Saracens scrum-half Richard Wigglesworth ahead of Ben Youngs, who had a particularly rough night against the Fijians, and persuaded him to stick with the Geoff Parling-Courtney Lawes partnership in the engine room of the scrum, rather than reintroduce Joe Launchbury. Having settled on three personnel changes and one of the positional variety – as expected, Billy Vunipola will play at No 8 instead of the injured Ben Morgan – Lancaster felt he was in danger of overdoing it on the tinkering front.
There again, he must have been sorely tempted to start Launchbury, in particular. England’s scrummaging was less than convincing last Friday night, they spent long spells in second place at the tackle area and some of their ball-carrying was plain wrong. Lancaster admitted as much, and also accepted that the Wasps lock was handsomely equipped to sharpen up the red-rose act in all three areas of concern. Why would he still be on the bench?
“It’s two-fold, really,” Lancaster explained. “The first thing is to do with the line-out. Not Joe’s line-out work – more the fact that we want Parling on the field to start with, running what is clearly going to be an important part of the game. Wales tend not to give you too many line-outs because they kick a lot infield, but there will be some for sure and we think it’s important to have Geoff there.
“Also, I thought Joe’s impact against Fiji from the 45-50 minute mark was huge, and I don’t see it being any different this weekend. He’ll be on early. We have some firepower on the bench.”
The coach appeared wholly convinced by his own arguments, despite the voices ranged against him. Many of those voices have been supportive of Ford: indeed, one of the Bath player’s predecessors in the England No 10 shirt, Toby Flood, suggested he would be “pretty devastated” at losing his starting place, adding that it would be “hard to take”.
It was not an argument that impressed Lancaster. “George is disappointed, obviously, but the important thing is how you deal with disappointment,” the coach said. “He’s already turned it into a determination to improve his game and show us why he should start. But that’s no different to Owen when he was dropped before Christmas. It’s no different to Danny Care, who was our starting No 9 and is now third choice. It’s the way selection works.”
As for the way the world works, a defeat off the back of these changes will leave the hierarchy open to the most furious criticism imaginable. Lancaster is well aware of the fact and accepts that his entire stewardship of the national team will be judged on this game and the follow-up match with Australia seven days later. After almost four years, we have finally reached the heart of the matter.Reuse content