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England’s exciting selection, Wallaby boldness, & Mike Phillips’ shame

Having seen Stuart Lancaster’s England team to face Australia my excitement at covering the game on Saturday for Fifteen Rugby has skyrocketed.

The team is clearly selected on form and carries genuine attacking threat, something that has often been neglected by England sides in favour of solidifying the defensive side of the game.

The only selection that could really be disputed on form is the selection of Mike Brown over Ben Foden at full back, the Saints man has been in scintillating form this season. However Brown has been in pretty good shape himself this season and after spending so much time in the ‘graveyard shift’ on the left wing, who can deny that he deserves a decent run at full back?

Billy Twelvetrees

One area where the selection hand has been slightly forced is in the centres after Manu Tuilagi and Brad Barritt both suffered long term injuries. That hands starts to Billy Twelvetrees at 12 and Joel Tomkins at 13.

For Tomkins it is a wonderful opportunity and he will be a key player with his offload game and an important cog in the defensive structure, however, with the greatest of respect, he will have to do something exceptional to be able to turn himself into a full on contender once the injuries subside.

Inside him though Billy Twelvetrees has a brilliant opportunity to become the first choice inside centre for England. Every time he has started for his country he has impressed and if he can do so again then his chances of being the leading inside centre heading into the World Cup will be very strong indeed.

He is probably the only man that England have in that position who has the ability to create through his handling and if he can prove that his consistency is there and, crucially, if he can give Farrell the confidence to play flat, safe in the knowledge that he has a second distributer outside him, he could be the man to turn England into a positive attacking force.

Let us not forget that he was called up to the Lions before Brad Barritt and ahead of the likes of Ireland’s Luke Marshall and Gordon D’Arcy, Wales’ rising star Scott Williams, and Scotland’s best inside back Matt Scott. A sure sign of how highly he is rated.

Ashton is back

Outside those two centres are Marland Yarde and Chris Ashton on the wings.

It is hard to quibble with the selection of Yarde, he has been in stunning form for London Irish and as well as excellent pace and finishing he offers a good physical presence too. He has a real opportunity to make the left wing spot his own and to end the trend of turning full back’s into makeshift wingers.

The selection that will probably spark the most discussion though is the selection of Chris Ashton. On form this season nobody can deny that Ashton deserves his place (except possibly his clubmate Dave Strettle who might feel he has been equally good), the controversy is that many fans sitting at home or in the stands on Saturday have not forgotten the defensive mishaps that littered his 2012/13 season.

He is still not the best defender, though his stats have marginally improved this season, however the difference is that he is scoring tries again and if Chris Ashton is scoring tries then you can forgive the occasional lapse at the other end. Or to put it another way, an in form Chris Ashton brings in more points than he risks losing and is therefore a sensible selection.

With tries comes confidence and with confidence comes a rise in all aspects of a players performance, Chris Ashton is no different.

He is bang in form but it will take tries for the England fans to forget Wesley Fofana being allowed an open passage to the try line last year.

Lee Dickson

Perhaps the most obvious form selection from Stuart Lancaster is the selection of Lee Dickson at scrum half. The Northampton Saints number 9 has been third in the pecking order for England for some time now but his brilliant response to the arrival of the world class Kahn Fotuali’i at Saints has seen him deservedly called into the starting XV.

It leaves Ben Youngs on the bench, despite his achievements with the Lions, but in selecting the most in form of all his scrum halves Lancaster has been true to his word and has possibly just shown every England player that no matter what your credentials are, you must stay at the absolute top of your game otherwise another man playing better will be selected.

What will be interesting with the Dickson selection will be how he interacts with Owen Farrell at fly half. With an inexperienced backline surrounding him Farrell will be required to really lead this England back division, despite his own tender age.

It is a task that Farrell is more than capable of, as anyone who has seen any video footage of him in team changing rooms can tell you, age and reputation are no barrier to the young fly half voicing his opinion – a top quality in a fly half. For him to do that effectively though he needs to be absolutely in tune with Dickson, he cannot afford to be wasting time and effort worrying about what his scrum half might be up to.

Vunipola Brothers

Another man that Dickson will have to act fast to be in sync with is Billy Vunipola at number 8. The giant Saracen is selected ahead of Ben Morgan and will be expected to use his powerful running from the base of the scrum to get some forward momentum. He and Dickson must communicate though to ensure that Vunipola only goes at the right times.

Like Billy Twelvetrees, Vunipola has a great chance of securing the number 8 spot as his own ahead of the World Cup. The competition there is not fierce, it is essentially just him and Ben Morgan, though Northampton’s Sam Dickinson might argue, and if Vunipola can bring his bruising carrying into the international arena and show the ability to read the game well and influence the breakdown like an international class number 8 then he could blow any competition out of the water.

His brother Mako also has a good chance to prove that his scrummaging has improved. Injury to Alex Corbisiero gives Mako a chance to start on Saturday and if he can do well against the Wallaby scrummage he could gives the Saints man a tougher task than expected when he recovers to fitness.

The ability of Vunipola around the park has never been in question, indeed his performances for the Lions demonstrated that on the front he is possibly the best loosehead in the world. However to be a top loosehead the scrum must be the number on priority. If he can show that that aspect of his game is on the rise then it will make a big difference.

Three tight calls and three that were never in doubt

From the moment that Chris Robshaw was announced as England captain it was clear that he and Tom Wood would be the starting flankers. There could be speculation but in reality it was never in doubt.

What was also never in doubt was that Dan Cole would start at tighthead. He has been England’s rock for the last few years and despite Dave Wilson’s rising profile it would have taken something unbelievable to displace Cole.

That these three were certainties does not diminish the importance of their jobs though.

Robshaw has to play on a par with one of the best 7’s in the world at the moment in Michael Hooper, who was man of the match last year. Hooper is an expert at the breakdown and Robshaw must compete there. It is there that the selection of Wood will help.

Wood will almost always be there so Robshaw can afford to be a bit more loose than he might be if Tom Croft were his partner, meaning that the England captain should be able to put real pressure on Hooper, who has had to spend a lot of his time lately fire fighting to cover the errors of some of his teammates in defence.

Dan Cole must secure the scrum, in the loose he is exceptional but he must control the scrum or the England, if they get off to a shaky start there against Australia not only will it negatively impact this game but it will encourage Argentina and New Zealand to attack the England scrum – not a good scenario.

He will be aided by having the familiarity of his clubmate Tom Youngs next to him. Youngs was selected ahead of Dylan Hartley in what must have been one of the most hotly contested selections given the outstanding form of both men.

Youngs’ play in the loose probably just edged it but his selection also tells us something about the way England will try to scrum. Leicester have been trying, largely, to continue to drive over the ball rather than hook it so selecting two Tigers in the front row suggest England might do the same.

Behind them are Joe Launchbury and Courtney Lawes, with the in form Dave Attwood on the bench, while Geoff Parling misses out through injury. Just reeling off those four names, and considering the form that these four are in, shows just how good England’s options in the second row are at the moment.

Launchbury is the man in possession and almost had to start, and is in form, whilst Lawes has been simply outstanding this season, with a growing sense of maturity now added to his game as well.

Perhaps the surest sign of that maturity is that in the absence of Parling he is the man trusted with leading the England lineout.

Australia

Probably the most significant news from the Wallaby camp is that James Horwill has been axed as captain with Ben Mowen taking over. Rumour has it that had Rob Simmons been fit then Horwill would have been out of the side altogether, such has been his form.

Possibly even more newsworthy is the fact that Quade Cooper has officially been named as vice-captain. Whether that is genius or madness from Head Coach Ewen McKenzie remains to be seen but it is certainly a sure sign of the improved attitude of Cooper and of the man management that McKenzie must have shown.

What it also serves to do, though I am sure this did not come into consideration, is to demonstrate to London Irish’s new recruit, James O’Connor, that redemption is possible in the Wallaby camp and that if he can sort himself out there is a road back.

Quite why O’Connor has chosen to go to Irish is another matter, the influence of Brian Smith must be a factor though, what worries me is that Irish have been ticking along fairly well and while O’Connor has the ability to completely light the whole team up, he also has it within himself to destroy the environment. Something that as potential relegation contenders London Irish can ill afford.

Back to the Wallabies though, their team is largely as expected but the absence of Christian Leali’ifano from the starting XV is a little mystifying. He has been one of their better back of late. His clubmate Matt Toomua can do a fine job too but Leali’ifano certainly seemed like a man who deserved a shot.

And Finally

While Mike Phillips might be taking legal action over his sacking by Bayonne, and the way it was handled does seem odd, while his punishment seems strong compared to the fines for Dwayne Haare and Stephen Brett, the question still has to be asked; what on earth was he doing turning up drunk to a video analysis session?

Yes rugby is still a sociable game and to see that side of the game die out would be a shame but Mike, there is a time and a place and as a professional athlete that was most certainly not it. Just like turning up to work under the influence in any other industry is not acceptable.

It is not his first alcohol related issue either and while I am a big believer in the game retaining the amateur spirit, and am a firm believer that players do not bear any responsibility to behave in certain ways because they are ‘role models’, I do believe that as a professional player you do bear a responsibility to your team, and your employer, to behave like a professional.

I will be tweeting live from Twickenham on Saturday on @FifteenRugbyXV – if you think there are any stand out performances or talking points during the game then make sure to get in touch and we will try to put the questions to the men in charge.

By Angus Savage

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