THE UN­KNOWN QUAN­TITY

NZ Rugby World Tournament Guide - - CON­TENTS -

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.

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