By Charlie Morgan
The resumption of the Aviva Premiership wouldn’t have felt quite right without a strong-minded soundbite from Richard Cockerill, so it was no surprise when the Leicester honcho mischievously pondered England head coach Stuart Lancaster’s autumn selection policy in a press conference last week.
His main gripe was how little Toby Flood was used during this month’s QBE Internationals and, as usual, the abrasive former hooker was provocative while making his point.
“England still have not quite solved that 10, 12, 13 area, have they?” Cockerill said with a dash of understatement. “I’m a little bit disappointed Toby didn’t get to start. He had to enter the fray in a really important game [New Zealand] and he looked a little bit rusty because he hasn’t played.
“You probably need to have a little bit more rotation and see what players can do. Owen Farrell’s clearly the first-choice ten and that’s fine, but there were opportunities to play Toby and different people in that midfield and see if there were combinations that would make it tick.”
There is a point here. Across three matches at Twickenham, Flood was only afforded 13 minutes at fly-half – when an exhausted England had seen their pack’s ascendancy evaporate and were chasing a game from a standing start with the resurgent All Blacks 27-22 ahead.
The Tigers man did pick up scraps of game-time against the Australia and Argentina – a combined total of 32 minutes, to be exact – but replaced Billy Twelvetrees on both occasions.
This policy did instill calm in the win over the Wallabies. However, it was also a worrying echo of the 2011 World Cup quarter-final when Martin Johnson flung Flood the number 12 shirt as a frantic final resort. Flood is not a solution to indecision in the centres.
Graham Rowntree has England’s forwards in fine order. Without Alex Corbisiero and Tom Croft, they still bullied the world’s best at times this month. Even so, when your backs’ best shot at making metres is from kick-returns, it might be time to deploy a better distributor than Farrell at ten – especially when tactical kicking is also a concern.
Cockerill’s primary agenda is easily exposed. Flood is out of contract next year. As club captain, he is a valuable piece of the Welford Road furniture – passing 1,000 Premiership points during Saturday’s lacklustre defeat of London Irish – and will open negotiations for a new deal after Christmas.
With little left to tick off on a gleaming domestic CV, Flood will have no qualms about heading over the Channel if a role in England’s bid for the 2015 Rugby World Cup is not forthcoming. Those are the club particulars. They highlight a wider sensibility at international level.
A raft of untimely injuries to Brad Barritt, Manu Tuilagi, Henry Trinder, Christian Wade and Marland Yarde stunted Lancaster significantly. Yarde and Wade were certainly in line to play the Pumas at least. Still, apparent reluctance to hand a start to Flood or Freddie Burns spoke volumes.
For England, these autumn Tests were win-at-all-costs as a largely settled group looked to accumulate victories two years out from an assault on the Webb Ellis trophy. Lancaster wants his sides at the World Cup to contain around 500 caps (the one against the All Blacks featured just 315), so some continuity is expected. It’s the tinkering that will prove vital.
Take Wales and Warren Gatland’s attitude to his own fly half berth over the past three weeks. Free from expectation thanks to a dire autumn record – four years of straight losses before the 40-6 thrashing of the Pumas 10 days ago – the New Zealander cannily saw a chance to hold auditions in problem positions.
Rhys Priestland was given a shot at redemption against the Springboks on the back of sparky Scarlets form and even James Hook had a chance to translate his Top 14 excellence in the utterly abysmal Tonga game. While Dan Biggar was an important part of the Six Nations triumph, he has had to prove his unfussy skills all over again. The true must-win for Wales is the Saturday’s date with a weary Wallabies outfit and Gatland will choose his fulcrum with the benefit of a three-week trial.
Lancaster is undoubtedly bringing England on nicely and the trust he shows in players is a central aspect of his unassuming leadership. But in two years’ time, Wales and Australia visit Twickenham on successive weekends. England must know their best team. Even if Farrell has undoubtedly developed into a tenacious Test match performer who usually lands his goals unflappably, that might not be enough.