England look set to make major changes to their back division before the World Cup Group A match with Wales at Twickenham on Saturday, with Owen Farrell to replace George Ford at fly-half and the head coach, Stuart Lancaster, handing Sam Burgess his opportunity at inside centre.
Having started in the victory over Fiji, Jonathan Joseph is a major doubt with a chest injury and is expected to be ruled out. That would allow Burgess to come into the starting XV 11 months after he made the switch from rugby league, with Brad Barritt shifting to outside centre having started at No12 against Fiji.
However, the selection of Farrell ahead of Ford – who has been Lancaster’s preferred choice at No10 since last year’s autumn internationals – is the biggest surprise. The Bath fly-half was hailed as the talisman for England’s new bolder approach in the Six Nations that saw them score a record 18 tries in five matches but he appears to have been made the fall guy for ponderous performances in the warm-up game against France in Paris and against Fiji last week.
It is understood that England, who will announce their side on Thursdaymorning, have trained this week with Farrell at 10, Burgess at 12 and Barritt at 13. Against a Wales side liable to take the most direct route available, that kind of formidable physical barrier clearly has its attractions, if not necessarily in the pace department.
A more seamless option would have been Northampton’s Luther Burrell but he was jettisoned from Lancaster’s final 31. Jack Nowell has also played effectively at 13 for Exeter but this is not really the moment for hopeful experiments. This fixture could define the fortunes of both sides at this World Cup; woe betide the gambler who mislays his shirt.
Andy Farrell, England’s backs coach, was giving little away but did stress that Burgess is not merely seen as an impact replacement.
“The start of the game is pretty important as well, along with how you make the other team feel. I wouldn’t just pigeonhole him as an impact sub, just like New Zealand wouldn’t pigeonhole Sonny Bill Williams.”
He also said he would have no qualms about starting the relatively inexperienced Slade, who has one cap to his name. The least risky option of all would probably have been to pick Farrell at 12, a solution with the additional benefit of a second kicking option.
Either way it is a less than ideal situation in this tensest of weeks. Once again there is indecision about England’s midfield partnership, which seems light years removed from the established Greenwood/Tindall axis of distant memory. Even at Saracens there are those who feel Farrell Jr’s talents are not best utilised at centre; increasingly they have used him there only in extremis.
Do England still see him as a 12? “Yes, of course,” responded his father. “He’s been training there for 12 weeks. Everyone gets super-excited about the centre partnership but it’s about the balance of the whole team.” Goode also suggested a Saracens combination could easily work. “It will be looked at with a few other combinations but I certainly would be comfortable with that. They have a good understanding of each other. It wouldn’t be a massive step.”
A change, meanwhile, is also likely at No8, with Ben Morgan nursing a sore knee in the wake of Friday’s 35-11 victory over Fiji. Billy Vunipola, a sizeable second-half force off the bench, is back in the frame as England brace themselves for the most significant Anglo-Welsh occasion of modern times.
Farrell, part of Warren Gatland’s management team on the 2013 Lions tour, is suitably wary but is not interested in mind games. “We know what is coming and the type of game they want to play and the way we want to counteract that. We don’t just want to stop Wales from playing, we want to impose our game from the first whistle. It’s the game everyone is waiting to see at this World Cup.
“Form and predictions go out of the window. The crowd know what type of game it is this weekend and they’ll be pumped up to the max as well.” Farrell is also in no doubt England can deal with the fear factor. “I was always a player who had a fear of failure; it brought the best out of me.”