Last night – Saturday 15th August – in front of a less-than-full Twickenham Stadium (official attendance circa 63,000), Stuart Lancaster’s makeshift England team held on to beat Phillipe Saint-Andre’s French equivalent by 19-14 in the first of two ‘warm up’ clashes between them – the return taking place in Paris next Saturday.
As was bound to be the case, despite the evidence of the action and the selection issues that had been identified in advance, yesterday’s outing told us plenty and nothing about both nations’ prospects in the Rugby World Cup which begins next month.
In my view, contrary to Sky Sports pundit Will Greenwood’s pre-match assertion that the sport doesn’t ‘do’ friendly matches because a less-than-fully-committed rugby player would automatically risk injury in collisions, ‘mind games’ inevitably affect all players vying for selection on the eve of a major tournament. Here – as had been well-trailed – several in key positions were playing for their places in their respective 31-man squads scheduled to be announced at the end of the month. These had to demonstrate their ability to execute the team’s play-book as handed out by the coaches and yet simultaneously shine out as individuals whilst also not getting injured this close to tournament-time.
Not easy. Which is why picking over the entrails is such a hazardous business.
Cutting straight to the chase and the backs – both England wing threequarters stood out.
Watson was electrifyingly quick and slippery for his two tries and May amply demonstrated that the word from training camp that he had impressed was not wrong.
Both debutant centres (Sam Burgess and Henry Slade) also did well, perhaps surprisingly in the former’s case. He put in some massive hits, ran some good decoy lines, made hard yards and, upon one occasion at least, offered some slick passing. On the debit side, either side of half time he spent ten minutes in the bin for an instinctive but silly ‘shirt-pull’ on Morgan Parra after the French Number 9 had taken a quick penalty.
In this elevated company, as I expected, Slade still looked a class act but even he tackled a ball-catcher in the air at one point, a near capital offence these days. He should have been yellow-carded for it but escaped with a mere warning.
Elsewhere full-back Alex Goode had an excellent outing at full-back but – when he came on late in the second half – Danny Cipriani had no opportunity to show what he could bring to the party.
Here’s the low-down. Watson and May have to make the final squad, end of message.
Supposedly, Barritt and Joseph are already the nailed-on centres, leaving Burrell, Burgess, Slade and Twelvetrees to fight for the other two places in this position. This conundrum is complicated by the Goode/Cipriani issue as potential ‘back-up playmakers-cum-full backs’ because, when it comes to it, any of Goode, Cipriani, Slade or even Watson could take this role (i.e. also covering the full back slot as back-up to Mike Brown) but the likelihood is that only one of them will.
For my money, a strong defence is the key requirement in a full back, which is why I would not consider Goode or Watson, who are less than bullet-proof in this department. I’d actually take a punt on Slade, who is. As a makeshift centre (or even 10 if necessary) he would not suffer in comparison with either Goode or Cipriani.
I’d go even further. These days, for me, Owen Farrell (currently occupying the back-up 10 slot to George Ford plus also perhaps covering inside centre at a push) is past his sell-by date. I don’t mean he’s old and all washed-up – he’s still only a kid – but he’s distinctly pedestrian in comparison to Ford and Slade as a play-maker and game-changer, despite as ever being rock solid as a big-match player and goal-kicker. Just saying it.
And also suggesting that the best options at 10 would be Ford and Slade. It may be regarded as too early for them, but I’ll go so far as to predict here that they’ll be the 10s in the 2020 RWC so why not pick them now as well?
The England pack was a different matter altogether. Before the match big things were predicted of them but little of it materialised.
Meanwhile the French forwards were impressive from the outset and, after the break when the substitutions became bewildering in their frequency, they dominated in the set pieces. Simply not good enough, England. The back row was not at the races until Haskell came on in the second half – the breakdown area was ugly and far too many turnovers were conceded, a significant issue when everyone and his dog is predicting potential carnage when England come up against Australia with their two groundhog 7s (Pocock and Hooper) playing in tandem.
The ‘Callum Clark at 7’ experiment, if this was its single (make-or-break) outing, was not a success. Furthermore I felt that stand-in skipper Tom Wood had a quiet match by his standards.
The French will have been encouraged by their performance.
Saint-Andre had done his usual ‘any-old-how-will-do/crazy man’ selection act but some of their interplay and passing between backs and forwards was wonderful and next weekend in Paris – when both coaches are promising to field their 1st XVs – the hosts will probably and rightly be confident of getting a result.