A French Lesson by Simon Halliday

The French team must be feeling oh so important in the scheme of the upcoming World Cup preparations by England. It’s not often that the once mighty Bleus are relegated to a bit part in what’s become the Sam Burgess show. Apparently his last chances to show his World Cup credentials, or did I mean his first?

In actual fact I am very excited about this England midfield for one reason- Henry Slade is a player of world class potential, with passing skills of a centre but footballing skills of a 10. He does not have the searing pace of Joseph or the raw power of most of his International competitors. But he has a rugby brain which is invaluable. So of course does George Ford, and does England need both? Moreover, he hasn’t been given a chance to show what he can do and now has a one off shot with a midfield whose distribution capabilities are far from conclusive.

There is one very good reason why Lancaster has persisted with the Burgess experiment. He knows that he has failed to work out a midfield strategy over the last four years. Countless pretenders have come and gone. Ironically, even had Tuilagi kept his nose clean I am not even sure that he has made enough progress in the modern day demands of midfield play? Jonathan Joseph has it all, but was found recently and by mistake, and Elliott Daly doesn’t have structure, but all the talent. Barritt is a safe pair of hands, Twelvetrees is not (sadly), and the best ball player of the lot, Kyle Eastmond, doesn’t fit the mould of this new model army of Lancaster, and apparently cannot tackle…really?

So, what is the reason? Well, simply that there is nothing to lose. The failure to develop cohesive units has left the squad with a route one imperative, and Burgess knows his way. Also he will be extremely unfazed when the heat comes on, that matters when looking back at the last four years and various pressure cooker atmospheres which have left England well underdone. You can imagine Burgess shrugging, smiling and carrying on. I also have a hunch that George Ford has a lot of time for Burgess and has been influential, the Farrell twins has been also, though that’s hardly surprising.

Lancaster is also aware that England has very little X-factor, he will give thanks for Joseph, May and Watson, but perhaps, just perhaps, Burgess is another. With all that pace out wide which England possess, midfield dummy runners could be the answer. Perhaps Burgess will have a non ball-handling role, and leave Ford/Farrell to rifle out the long passes when it’s on. Believe me, England will have plenty of ball to work with, they always do. Rowntree could select two England packs and they would be as strong as each other – no other country in the world can do that.

Fascinating game ahead then, against a tired French squad who have hardly had a rest, is feeding off the melancholy of their departing coach, defines flair by how well they kick the ball….. and yet, never fails to peak in a World Cup.

Who will teach who a lesson I wonder? It would mark a new low in French Flair if they were undone by a raw recruit from league and you can be sure that Burgess is no respecter of reputations. Sadly, I am not sure whether there are any Frenchmen opposite him who have much of a reputation to lose.


PS I didn’t mention Luther Burrell – quite like him really as a top player with bags of ability but can’t see where he gets in!