Weekend Sat 15th Aug
England and France - made their first appearances at Twickenham. Both teams looked to have many squad back up players involved, with some players playing for final cut status. Pretty much a meaningless game terms of result, however winning is always good for squad morale and more so for the home nation, England. Very little gained from the game in terms of clues as to how England or France intend to go about approaching the forthcoming World Cup. Individuals tend to attract the attention, "he did this and that well etc", however it is the whole that is most important. How will the teams approach their games when the competition commence? How will the blend between forwards and backs develop. Ask any rugby follower where the strength of England lay and would think most would say, in the forwards where they have great quality and most importantly, depth. France on the other hand would normally register a reply of unpredictability, with both forwards and backs having ability to win games dependent on the mood but often the twain don't meet.....and often the mood is not productive ! So with this game we saw England backs, mainly the exceptional pace and willingness of the wings to support the attacks off their wing, produce outstanding moments of quality and score 3 tries. However the forwards lost the game, out performed in just about every department resulting in a high penalty imbalance, low possession and continuity.
Why is this ? Well the pack that started are more used to carrying, providing targets and hitting targets over gain lines. Would think if the England forwards were asked who they want in the centres they would go for Barritt, Burgess, Burell and Joseph as all these are capable of providing targets. With the half backs they would go for Ford and Youngs as they would not kick so much, meaning they have to stop, wait then chase. Forwards want targets and to have something to hit, well England's forwards do, mostly. However England's supposedly front line pack including Launchbury, Cole, Robshaw, Youngs, Marler and Lawes, provide much more effective support in terms of off loads, turnovers, clearing in all the channels across the field, providing England backs with the option to run and pass. Basically the starting pack offer so much more above quality set piece work than the pack we saw on Saturday who struggled to interact with the back line options. This provides England with the conundrum about how they approach the World Cup. Certainly with focus on a forwards based approach and direct running backs will only take you so far and not win the World Cup. Selecting Slade at 13 could be accommodated with the front line pack, however he is not a running threat to the level of Joseph, Daly or Nowell. So what's the conundrum for England ? To me it's straight forward if you have Ford as your staring 10, Cipriani must be selected as back up 10 and Farell cut from the squad. This is no way judgemental of the high quality of the two players, but simply these two options have polarised playing approaches. You could play either confidently, but and its a big but, the only way England will win the World Cup is with a all 15 playing approach, stretching defences wide, high continuity and bring the pace out wide into the game on a regular basis. When the 10's have been chosen everything else falls into place. We know the best starting pack. Can add in the likes of both Vunipola's, George, Attwood and Morgan....even Haskell....then we have a pack that covers the field ball in hand with a strong set piece. The backs can then confidently include Slade and Goode as back 13 and 15 respectively. 3rd scrum half England would then need to add in Simpson also dropping Wigglesworth. Both Farrell and Wigglesworth are outstanding players but play a vastly different way to the likes of Ford and Youngs the first choice half backs. The concern is it seems selection is going on a player for player basis as opposed to this is how we want to play and selecting accordingly. Expecting to see a much more complete, joined up, performance this coming weekend with Ford staring alongside Youngs and a much more capable pack in terms of a ball in hand approach.
For me it's difficult to cut Farrell having played an important role in England progress over several years, but it is hard calls that need to be made, a commitment to the chosen playing direction and to get out of the comfort zone. Cipriani should bench this week behind Ford and biggest call of all Simpson should drafted in. I would also make a case for Daly, however Slade offered enough to maintain inclusion, more in terms of distribution and of course provides a 3rd 10 option. So players to cut would be - Cowen Dickie, Parling, Corbisero (not cut depending on Brookes injury), Wigglesworth (Simpson in), Farell, Burrell, Twelevetrees, Clark and Wilson - please note, Burgess would remain as he also covers 6 a plus.
Weekend Sat 8th Aug
New Zealand - despite making most of the running to date, suffered a blow to confidence at the weekend, losing to Australia. Although a blow, the result is not a major impact to their chances of lifting the 2015 World Cup trophy, however it has exposed weaknesses and provided the other main contenders with direction how to approach games against them. The normal accuracy was missing from the NZ performance. This is something in their control, should they put this right then they will still command favouritism. However the lack of accuracy was caused by Australia competing hard at the breakdown and engaging excellent line speed in defence, something others with stronger packs than Australia will note. The NZ Achilles Heal was exposed effectively by Australia. Target Aaron Smith and restrict his influence in attack and the NZ game is significantly weakened. Fully expect NZ to balance their pack better to deal with these threats and for me still remain tournament leading contenders.
South Africa - narrow defeats to NZ, Australia and now Argentina will focus the minds in South Africa. Traditionally this leads to a reaction from South Africa to further simplify their game plan, become very direct, play for territory and penalties. I fully expect they will stay true to tradition. It will not be pretty watching SA over the next few months but not be easy for opponents either. They have the resource to take and play an effective very one diamensional game play approach. It has led to success in the past and I fully expect this will very much keep them in the mix for the final shake up.
Australia - major boost with victory over NZ in a meaningful game. They have very much addressed their weaknesses and adopted an approach which, against NZ, worked well. They still have serious issues at set piece and against teams with less ambition and stronger, more competent, packs than NZ, will find it difficult to function. However, Australia present a huge challenge to every team and injuries permitting (squad depth is an issue) they will be hard to beat. As with NZ and SA, a clear and distinct game plan has emerged. Attacking structures looked limited, however with the ability to turn over large amounts of possession via a strong focus on the breakdown they do have the players to benefit from these limited opportunities. Equally the line speed in defence was exceptional. If they can force these levels of errors from NZ then others better beware.
Ireland - very different from the Southern Hemisphere sides above coming out of a pre season camp and starting match preparation. The game against Wales was a squad game providing an opportunity to assess depth of squad and clarity of coaching direction. Ireland will be very happy with there initial outing, showing collective understanding and very good integrated squad depth. They were clear as to what they wanted to achieve. Ireland have excellent depth half back, enabling them to seamlessly rotate and maintain playing philosophy/principles. Out of all the teams in action at the weekend Ireland were best in terms of ball presention enabling effective fast ball continuity, this assessment needs to be tempered against a Welsh team which displayed early season rustiness and a lack of real squad depth. Clearly they have spent a lot of the preseason on accuracy and detail in this area. Ireland look very much on course for a competive World Cup.
Argentina - traditionally a game plan solely based around forward power, over the last two seasons or so Argentina have expanded their approach. This is due to inclusion in the Southern Hemisphere tournament providing a much increased challenge, more and more players being involved in European professional leagues resulting not only in tactical/technical development but equally as significant improved fitness levels. Improved fitness levels were very evident some 2 or 3 seasons ago, now coupled with hardened match experience Argentina are in the mix. Argentina have very talented players and although not enough depth of squad to go all the way, the squad depth is improving and will make Argentina very competitive. I feel this World Cup is the best opportunity for Argentina before the professional game really kicks in. Bit like England in 2003 with a mix of players from the Amatuer era which provides strong team spirit, collectivity and often greater game awareness/skill. Currently expectation is still low which helps their cause. So little pressure, this will change, pressure and expectation will increase in future years. However for this World Cup a semi final spot is a realistic target for Argentina.
Wales - difficult day at the office for Wales v Ireland. It is only a first up performance since, by all accounts, a tough pre season training camp. Wales have a well established set of playing principles which when applied are very effective. The main concern for Wales at this stage, some key players are missing, will be missing and depth of quality and experience looks weak. However the coaching set up is vastly experienced and renowned for timing of peak performance. I think this will be the coaching set ups biggest ever challenge. A vastly improvemed performance is required this week if they are to have any chance of progress from the pool stages.
France - yet to see what France will throw up. Whatever we see this weekend v England will be pretty much irrelevant in any case as France can and do lurch from one end of the performance spectrum to the other in a space of one week. The main issue for France will be the mind set and collective nature of the players. The current coaching set up has added the erratic nature of the French performances of late and there is simply no evidence that this will change as they move towards the start of the 2015 World Cup. Momentum is everything with France. They could well progress from the Pool stages and this could well kick start their World Cup campaign. Could they win it, yes. Wilł they win it, no. Just feel the baggage will take its toll.
England - again reports of a very hard and demanding pre season conditioning/rugby camp. First up game v France this weekend most likely involving the wider squad and some final cut hopefuls. Biggest issue for England has been the centre pairing which now with Barritt and Joseph looks pretty nailed on. What is not so clear with England are the back up centre options. The omission of Daly as a straight replacement for Joseph significantly lessens the clarity of the proposed playing philosophy. We will get more clarity after the next cut, however hard to see anything other than a make shift back line. The decision to remove Manu Tuilagi may come back to haunt England. Laudable as it was, it was more of a legacy decision as compared to a performance decision. With Tuilagi in place England could well be looking at a final slot.
Ok, early days but as we stand from the to date information semi finals look like this to me -
Semi Final 1 South Africa v New Zealand
Semi Final 2 Argentina v Australia