By Bea Asprey
THE GUARD has changed within the England EPS squad. As Toby Flood announced his departure to France in January, 20-year-old George Ford was called up to replace him in the Six Nations squad to comply with the RFU’s policy not to pick players who play their club rugby overseas. Ford has been on head coach Stuart Lancaster’s radar for a number of years, and his form for Bath this season has caught the eye, yet losing a player with 60 caps to his name will have an impact on the squad. We assess England’s fly-halves below.
Having started his career as Jonny Wilkinson’s apprentice at Newcastle, Toby Flood finally emerged from the legend’s shadow when he joined Leicester in 2008. The playmaker started to make his mark for England in that season under Martin Johnson, and travelled to New Zealand for the 2011 World Cup as England’s first choice 10. Lancaster himself tried to persuade Flood to stay at Leicester, and the coach says: “He has made a lifestyle choice and we respect that but given the RFU’s policy of not selecting players based overseas save for exceptional circumstances it was important that we allow others such as George Ford to progress.”
The current holder of England’s No 10 jersey, Owen Farrell made his debut for Saracens aged just 17, making him the youngest player to ever play professional rugby. When he made his England debut at Murrayfield four years later, the rugby world waited for his nerves to crack, and yet with a current kicking success rate of 82% it’s clear that they’ve remained as steely as ever. The 22-year-old Lion has been criticised for his lack of creativity, however, and also displayed a hot head when taking a swing at his Saracens team-mate Schalk Brits when the Lions took on the Barbarians in Hong Kong. But Lancaster’s loyal nature means Farrell is embedded for now, and is looking like he’ll be England’s first choice in 2015.
A former rugby league player, Stephen Myler has gradually worked his way up the ranks with club and country, having cemented his starting place at Northampton, and featured for England Saxons on eight occasions. His goal kicking tops Farrell’s with an 84% success rate, the highest in the Premiership, and he was given his first and only senior England cap to date in Argentina last summer. At the age of 29, he’s not a long-term option for Lancaster, yet his experience, form and consistency warrant his inclusion in this year’s Six Nations squad, and with Flood vacating the bench spot the Saint has everything to fight for.
Farrell’s former-England U20s team-mate, George Ford is used to fighting for the 10 shirt. The son of former England coach Mike Ford, Ford junior made the switch from Leicester to Bath this season to get more game time, a decision that’s seen him catapulted into the EPS. Having steered the U20s to a Six Nations Grand Slam and Junior World Cup final in 2011, he was the first Englishman to be named IRB World Junior Player of the Year. He’s been tipped as the next Wilkinson since his U18 days, but it’s only this season that he’s had enough game time to be able to string a number of good performances together. With a 68% kicking success rate and having beaten 15 defenders this season so far, Ford will be quietly determined to take his place on England’s bench. Lancaster says: “His tactical game is excellent, as is his kicking game, he’s a good goal kicker, and the club and I have been impressed with his maturity.”
His name transcends sport, but Danny Cipriani has been in the headlines for all the wrong reasons since he led England to victory over Ireland in 2008, and he hasn’t played for his country since. Undeniably talented, with pace and a nous for running a game, it’s unfortunate that celebrity girlfriends and wayward buses have taken priority over his on-field performances in years gone by, but his form and consistency at Sale seem to be picking up once more. Lancaster says: “I’ve watched all Danny’s games, looking for the same thing I look for in all fly-halves: defence, game management, attack and kicking game. He’s been a lot more consistent this season, but he’s still not overtaken Ford in my opinion. I’ve no issue with him as a person, but he needs to strive to be in our squad.”
23-year-old Freddie Burns has admitted that speculation over his future is affecting his performances on the pitch, and his kicking success rate has dropped to 57% of late. He’s beaten 16 defenders, though, and is an exciting fly-half to watch when on form, and Lancaster is hoping he’ll lay down a marker playing for England Saxons this month. Lancaster says of the Gloucester 10: “We can all see Freddie’s talent, and most players dip in form at some stage of their career. He’s not played for a few weeks, which is why he’s in the Saxons, though there’s no technical issue with his game.” It’s rumoured that Burns, who’s younger brother Billy also plays at Gloucester, will be called in by Leicester as Flood’s replacement.
He’s still in the England U20s squad, but Exeter Chief Henry Slade is already on Lancaster’s radar. He was key member of the U20s side that won the Six Nations and Junior World Cup last season, and has become a popular Premiership fixture at Sandy Park this year. The 20-year-old, who came through Exeter’s academy, loves to play an expansive game in true Chiefs style, and has earned his first call up to the England Saxons squad, announced this week.