Everyone from the media to coaches to fans has spoken about George Ford’s diminutive stature, but the real focus should be on England’s makeshift 12, Owen Farrell.
For only the sixth time in their international careers, Ford and Farrell will line up at 10 and 12 together, having already faced Samoa, Uruguay, Scotland, Italy and Ireland together.
However, the ferocious power of the likes of Jamie Roberts, Jonathan Davies, George North and Alex Cuthbert is likely to cause England’s fledging partnership a plethora of problems. Although an injury-hit Ireland side was indeed a step up from a determined but ultimately disappointing Italy and a Scotland team simply not able to win consecutive games, this Wales side will stretch England’s defensive wall.
Although a great deal of the media’s focus has been on Ford in the build up to the game, he has dealt with opponents just as powerful and physically dominant many times before and, more pertinently, has been part of an England side that has beaten Wales with the likes of Jamie Roberts and George North playing. Because of Ford’s diminutive stature, he will almost always come up against players that tower over him, but he has constantly put his body on the line for both his club and his country, and this won’t change.
Indeed, Eddie Jones said in a recent press conference (via Wales Online) using his perpetually effervescent parlance:
“They’re buoyant mate, flying down the M4.
“Jamie Roberts is leading the charge now so George (Ford) is going to park himself in front of the M4.”
Jones knows Ford won’t shirk his defensive responsibilities and if Wales do target him, as is widely expected, then it will not come as a surprise to England or to their fly-half.
However, if anything all eyes should be on Owen Farrell. He is still finding his feet in a position that up until recently was quite alien to him. He has spent most of his Saracens career at 10 and only occasionally ever made way for Charlie Hodgson. Farrell made his England debut at 12 against Scotland back in 2012 during Stuart Lancaster’s first game in charge, but shifted to 10 against Wales after Toby Flood picked up an injury.
So far, Farrell has made a decent fist of his shift at inside centre and was involved in a number of tries against all of England’s three Six Nations opponents so far, but his defensive positioning and his awareness and speed in attack will both be thoroughly examined by a Wales. Gatland’s Welsh side is one that perceives defence as paramount, that sees line speed as an all-important yardstick for any team and that has a utilitarian approach to directness in attack before going wide.
It is likely that Ford will make way for Farrell in the second half, probably the final quarter of the game, when Manu Tuilagi will make his long-awaited return to the test stage. Tuilagi will certainly be looking to exploit any gaps created by tired bodies after what is likely to be an epic physical battle for most of the match, but until that point Farrell is going to have his work cut out for him.
But if Farrell passes his hardest examination of his ‘second five-eighth’ credentials today then he will become a long-term and viable option for England at 12, which would be a welcome addition to Jones’ armoury, given he sees Tuilagi as primarily a 12 and has the returning Henry Slade to add to the equation.
It’s often said that Farrell’s bark is bigger than his bite and he certainly does a lot of talking on the field, but today he needs to put his money where his mouth is and show he can do a job for England at 12.
Paul Wassell, Pundit Arena