Morgan to pay price for England’s stuttering start
Vunipola set for recall for crunch Wales match Launchbury and Farrell push for starting roles
Perhaps we expected too much. After a wonderfully apposite, succinct and at times moving opening ceremony at Twickenham on Friday night, we then witnessed a pretty poor rugby match, and not just because of the endless Television Match Official consultations, with England, certainly until their heavyweight bench arrived, playing at a level well below what they and the English public expect and demand.
Yet again the scrummage was a concern, with one put-in criminally lost against the head on England’s line, from which Fiji scored a try, and England were smashed at the breakdown. There was a lack of penetration and directness from the ball carriers, with Ben Morgan having an ominously quiet game at No 8, meaning that the half-backs had little platform from which to work.
That said, Ben Youngs was horribly nervy at scrum-half and fly-half George Ford never took the game by the scruff of the neck. Outside them the inside centre Brad Barritt had his worst game in an England jersey.
However, England still won 35-11 against muscular, awkward opponents who are never easy to put away and who threw bodies into the breakdown from all angles, without the requisite punishment from the referee.
There was also the magnitude of the occasion to consider, with a greasy ball too, as well as the inconvenience of the opening ceremony, with the players locked inside the changing rooms waiting to warm up.
And England snatched a bonus point with the last play of the game. I said before the match that it would represent a huge statement should they take that extra point, and whilst it felt on Friday night as if they only crept outside the front door to whisper their intentions rather than screaming them from the rooftops, it could become ever louder as the pool progresses.
You would expect Australia to take the full five points on Wednesday against Fiji, if only because Fiji will not have recovered fully from Friday night’s exertions by then, but can Wales do likewise with just four days’ rest after playing England?
That can wait. Now all eyes turn to next Saturday when Wales will visit Twickenham. They are always special occasions, but this could easily be the most special of all. There is just so much at stake.
As ever there is a contrast in the selection processes for the respective coaches.
Wales have so few dilemmas. They know their side – asked whether places were up for grabs in the opening training session against Uruguay (that is all it is) the Wales head coach, Warren Gatland, said simply: “Not really.”
The side pick themselves, and, barring injury, they will have Sam Warburton and Dan Lydiate as the flankers, with Justin Tipuric to come off the bench, despite what the Welsh romantics might desire.
Wales are pairing Warburton and Tipuric against Uruguay today and might do so against Australia, to counter Michael Hooper and David Pocock, but against the more physical sides they know that they need Warburton and Lydiate.
When they hammered England in that famous Six Nations match at the Millennium Stadium in 2013, Warburton and Tipuric did play together, but that was not the reason Wales won. Instead it was the scrummage, England’s poor selection in omitting ball-carriers in the back five of the pack and also their naivety in how they tried to chase the game from their own half.
In general Gatland simply has a shallower pool of talent from which to choose. He might have more worldclass players – Warburton, Alun Wyn Jones and Jamie Roberts – but his opposite number Stuart Lancaster has many more Test-class players. The problem for Lancaster is that so many of them are of the same standard.
Therefore when one drops below his usual level of performance, it is very tempting to make changes. And so many of this England team can do that, as Friday demonstrated. It is the greatest concern for them in this tournament, because it begs the question of whether the collective can string together enough high-quality performances to progress as far as they would really like.
However, some of England’s work was so sub-standard against Fiji that change is inevitable. Billy Vunipola for Morgan would appear to be a no-brainer.
Vunipola was magnificent when he appeared and gave the team the goforward that had been so obviously lacking. Sometimes it can be dangerous to take too much from the efforts of bench players appearing when the
Some of England’s work against Fiji was so sub-standard that change is inevitable
opposition are tired and the hard work has been done, but probably not here.
It is such a close call between them anyway, with Morgan often getting the nod for his better rugby smartness – and one assumes he knew about the importance of bonus points, even if Vunipola, quite remarkably, did not after scoring the fourth try on Friday – but size matters against Wales.
England beat Wales in Cardiff this year because their pack battered them. Vunipola was playing then, but so, too, were Dylan Hartley, Dave Attwood and James Haskell, who are all heavier than those playing in their places at present.
For that reason Geoff Parling may miss out against Wales, too. Yes, he was reinstated recently to rectify the lineout troubles and has done that, but Wales’s line-out is not necessarily one to fear and England need more weight in the scrummage. It is time for Joe Launchbury to return.
James Haskell will not do so simply because Tom Wood is playing better than at any time in his England career. Wood offers a better line-out option, too. Both props, Joe Marler and Dan Cole, need to step up. It would be a surprise were they to be omitted, with Cole perhaps under the greatest pressure, but they both must realise that their work is simply not good enough at the moment.
Tom Youngs will always be pilloried in some quarters, and often errors at the line-out and scrummage are not his fault, but his work-rate and commitment are exemplary. He is far from being England’s greatest concern, as is his brother at scrum-half in fact.
Barritt will surely also retain his place, even though Sam Burgess did have an impact when he arrived, but the most difficult selection might come at fly-half. Fiji targeted Ford mercilessly, and Wales will surely do the same if he plays next Saturday. They were miffed that they engineered only one opportunity for Jamie Roberts to run at him in Cardiff this year. They might not make the same mistake again.
Ford has done some wondrous things in attack for England in the past year, but the evidence is mounting that he cannot work off the back foot. That, of course, is a very difficult task, but some make better jobs of it than others.
I have long been an advocate of Owen Farrell, simply because his confrontational and abrasive style of play is ideally suited to Test rugby. And with a tricky kick to win a match I would always back him over Ford.
It could come down to that next Saturday. It will certainly be confrontational and abrasive. It could be one of the great Rugby World Cup matches.
There again, that might just be expecting too much again. This time England will definitely settle just for victory, as they have in 13 of the past 15 matches between the two teams at Twickenham.