Ahead of arguably England’s most important World Cup pool game ever, Stuart Lancaster has prioritised dealing with Wales’s power, in a potentially career-defining move.
Following the announcement, centre Jonathan Joseph has been ruled out with a pectoral injury, events transpired quickly on Tuesday, with significant changes made to England’s three-quarters.
Owen Farrell is set to replace fly-half rival George Ford, rugby league convert Sam Burgess comes in for just his second international start at inside centre pushing Brad Barritt into the 13 shirt, in moves clearly implemented with Wales’s strengths in mind.
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Much of Wales’s success during the Warren Gatland era has derived from both their consistency and their ability to win the physical battle. Getting Jamie Roberts in particular, over the advantage line is crucial to the Welsh game plan and failure to do so; can expose just how much they continue to miss the brilliance of Shane Williams.
Burgess and Barritt as a partnership in this regard make perfect sense. Both relish their defensive duties and neither will be physically dominated. However; there is a very real threat that Lancaster has blunted his own weapons by nullifying Wales’.
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Lancaster isn’t blessed with as many attacking talents as the 2003 winning side, however; he has ultimately abandoned his previous emphasis on player’s respective ‘point of difference’, at the crucial time.
Though Joseph’s injury has forced his coach’s hand, the omission of Henry Slade highlights Lancaster’s intentions for Saturday. Regardless of his inexperience: Slade has just the solitary cap, the Exeter utility back would have provided a link with England’s back three.
Throughout the warm-up games the trio of Jonny May, Anthony Watson and Mike Brown were England’s biggest positive and a trio of Farrell, Burgess and Barritt are unlikely to maximise the outside backs' potential.
Watson and May are amongst the most dangerous runners in the World Cup however; the likelihood of them getting into a one-on-one scenario has diminished rapidly overnight. Brown will still be able to run from deep and provide attacking impetus but England’s wingers must revert to feeding off Burgess, in the hope of offloads.
Ford’s omission is arguably both the most contentious and significant. Style and game plan always revolves around the fly-half, with England’s two choices offering markedly different skill sets.
Where the Bath stand-off is vulnerable defensively and fallible from range off the tee, he has also transformed England’s attack in the last year. The combination of Ford and Joseph, had finally made England a threat away from the congestion of the midfield and both were excellent in the 21-16 win at the Millennium Stadium in February.
Though Farrell’s game has progressed since the Lions tour to Australia and he is a superior goal-kicker to his long-term friend; he is still not comfortable playing as a distributor close to the opposition’s defensive line.
Only in the aftermath to Saturday’s seismic clash will supported judgement be possible. Farrell, Burgess and Barritt are an untried midfield combination and much of their effectiveness will depend, upon the pack’s ability to deal with Wales at the breakdown.
However, by tailoring his side to meet Wales’s strengths before considering their own, Lancaster has made a call for which he, and he alone, will be judged. Whether savvy or excessively safe, only time will tell.
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