THE UNKNOWN QUANTITY
Hosts and second favourites yet England still don’t know their best team.
England are heavily fancied to win the tournament. But that, says RICHARD BATH, may be more to do with the intimidation factor of Twickenham than anything else.
THEY ARRIVE IN ENGLAND AS..?
Incredibly, as an unknown – yet inevitably hugely hyped - quantity. The hosts are ranked four in the world but are a conundrum.
On the debit side, in Stuart Lancaster they have a coach who despite being in charge since late 2011 still hasn’t won over many supporters, still doesn’t know his starting XV and is still fine-tuning how he wants his side to play.
They also have a well-established Six Nations track-record of being beaten in the crunch games. On the plus side, being at home confers enormous advantages because even average England sides have been formidable at Twickenham, where they haven’t lost to a Northern Hemisphere team since losing to Wales in February 2012. Okay, they have lost to New Zealand (twice), South Africa (twice, by one and three points respectively) and Australia since the beginning of 2012, but only once by more than a converted try, and they’ve also beaten the Aussies twice and also turned over the All Blacks (38-21). If they can top a tricky pool that includes Australia and Wales (and the English have not lost to Wales since 1987 in a World Cup, and since 1991 against Australia), then they should avoid the All Blacks and Springboks, probably facing Ireland at Twickenham with the final also at Twickenham. No wonder the bookies have them as second favourites behind New Zealand.
WHAT TYPE OF FOOTBALL WILL THEY PLAY?
Although they can play it tight when necessary, this is a relatively young England side that are no longer the forward-dominated outfit of old, especially at home. In their last 21 games at Twickenham they have scored 54 tries, averaging 2.6 per game (including six tries in their last three home games against the All Blacks). They tend not to play a kicking game (mainly because they don’t play it very well) but with attacking halfbacks a backrow of ball-carriers, they tend to play a powerful but entertaining brand of rugby which involves taking it up through the middle through their forwards and then looking to stand-off George Ford and outside centre Jonathan Joseph to break the line.
ARE THEY SUITABLY MOTIVATED?
They’re the hosts, of course they’re suitably motivated.
DO THEY HAVE ENOUGH PERSONNEL DEPTH?
In most positions they have an embarrassment of riches but in others they’re thin or still don’t know their own minds. Losing key players Dylan Hartley and Manu Tuilagi, plus fringe player Danny Cipriani, all for disciplinary reasons, was a real blow, especially as the hooker and centre were both stick-on starters in problematic positions. There are excellent replacements for 9 and 10 in Danny Care and
Owen Farrell, but it’s a bit worrying when 36-year-old No 8 Nick Easter comes off the bench into the second row, as he did in their last home game.
CAN THEY COPE WITH THE PRESSURE?
Away from home England have lost a succession of crunch games ever since the Scots beat them in the 1990 Grand Slam decider, culminating with their defeat in Dublin by an Ireland side who went on to top the Six Nations table. However, at Twickenham they are made of far sterner stuff and have become a young (the average age of the backs in under 24 and the average age of the forwards is under 27, and between them Lancaster’s likely starting side has less than 250 caps compared with the All Blacks’ 1000-plus) but dogged side that never gives up but which does make mistakes under pressure.
There are issues around leadership, but in key areas they have players – most notably Ford, who always seems to have time – who rarely seem to be fazed. That said, on the big Twickenham stage the Bath players who make up some of England’s most potent attackers were pressurised into making a succession of game-losing mistakes in the recent Premiership play-off against Saracens, a fact that won’t have been lost on the highly-experienced Welsh and Wallaby back divisions.
WHERE ARE THEIR WEAKNESSES ?
Their primary weakness is a backrow that is so one-paced that it is often beaten to (and at) the breakdown. Part of this stems from the fact that skipper Chris Robshaw is more of a seven-anda-half than an out-and-out ball-winning seven, but Billy Vunipola isn’t exactly light on his feet either. The other issue up front is hooker Tom Youngs’ often wayward lineout throwing. Behind the pack, in defence both wings are vulnerable to the sort of kicking game that Ireland employed successfully against them (and which Wales, with two 1.95m wings, might copy), while in attack their kick-chase game is horribly lacklustre.
In the centres, the 12 jersey remains the key selection issue, with at least three different options in Bath’s former Rugby League player Kyle Eastmond (genius attacker, has been shown up defensively), the experienced Brad Barritt (an outstanding defender who offers relatively little in attack) or Luther Burrell (the halfway house).
WHAT ARE THEIR KEY STRENGTHS?
Up front, tighthead prop Dan Cole supplies solidity at scrum-time; Courtney Lawes, Geoff Parling and Chris Robshaw are a competent lineout unit; while Vunipola always makes ground with the ball in hand. Behind the scrum, scrum-half Ben Youngs provides a constant threat; 22-year-old Ford runs the backline with an élan far beyond his years; outside centre Jonathan Joseph has revolutionised England’s attacking options; fullback Mike Brown is a stonewall defender who has an uncanny ability to break tackles with ball in hand.
WHAT POTENTIAL PROBLEMS COULD THEY INCUR?
Brown is a key player but has suffered from concussion and there are question marks over his participation. England would miss him badly should he not make it. England also have an issue at hooker where Youngs is their only tried and tested option, but one whose lineout throwing can be problematic. Disciplinary issues have dogged England since the dwarfchucking debacle at the last World Cup, and with the team under the microscope on home soil and Lancaster having a no tolerance policy when it comes to off-field indiscretions there could be trouble ahead. The other issue is tiredness: England’s players have just endured a spectacularly tiring season for their clubs, with some top clubs playing almost 40 games this season.
DO THEY HAVE A STRONG ENOUGH LEADERSHIP TEAM?
They’ll need it throughout a tough pool stage and with an English public which expects them to win in style. Off the pitch, however, there are nagging doubts about Lancaster’s selection and tactical nous. On it, Robshaw leads by example but isn’t the sort of leader who can tactically assess opponents on the hoof. Ford leads the backs well, but the midfield is so short of age and caps that Lancaster may be tempted to play Barritt at inside centre to inject some experience. Up front there are plenty of caps, but the desire to have more natural leaders on the pitch could even see Sam Burgess brought in on the blindside.
PUFFING BILLY: Billy Vunipola lacks stamina.
SOME DOUBTS: Not everyone in England rates captain Chris Robshaw.