Austin Healey: Back-row battle, why Owen Farrell should be first choice and the need for England to be flexible

Austin Healey will be part of TNT Sports' rugby union coverage for the 2023/24 season
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Earlier this week, England assistant coach Richard Wigglesworth suggested Saturday's World Cup warm-up game with Wales in Cardiff wouldn't be a 'selection shootout.'

But Steve Borthwick's first team announcement of the summer certainly has a tinge of 'one shot, one opportunity' about it for a cluster of players.

Other than winger Max Malins, no player who played in the Premiership final is in the starting XV, and the England boss has selected an experimental side with those desperate to earn themselves a place on the plane to France now facing a final audition.

The back-row is arguably the most hotly contested and debated segment of the England squad and with Tom Pearson - now of Northampton Saints - winning his Test debut on Saturday at openside flanker, will he be able to deliver on the big stage after shining so brightly for London Irish during the 2022-23 season?

Packing down alongside him in the No.8 jersey will be Alex Dombrandt. The Harlequins forward had a mixed Six Nations campaign and will be fighting to cement his World Cup spot this weekend, while Tom Willis is on the bench and will be waiting in the wings to earn his first England cap after impressing for Bordeaux this term.

Notably, though, Saracens' Ben Earl misses out altogether.

Whether that is an indication that the 25-year-old is already part of Borthwick's plans or whether Earl will miss the cut completely when England's 33-man World Cup squad is announced on Monday, we will have to wait and see but TNT Sports pundit Austin Healey thinks it would be a shock if the Premiership winner was left behind.

"It would be a travesty for me if Ben Earl missed out on this World Cup squad," said Healey, speaking at the TNT Sports start-of-season event in London." He could be that back-row player that could arguably be in the most danger.

"I would take him [Earl] as an eight over Dombrandt if it was me selecting the team. If you mention the form players then obviously Ben Earl, [Tom] Pearson, but do you take an uncapped openside when you have got [Tom] Curry there and maybe Earl? I think the decision might come down to Earl or Pearson in the back-row or Dombrandt so that is a really difficult selection.

"We need players that are good over the ball. You look at the Irish back row and why Ireland [No.1 team in the world] are so good. It is because they flood the breakdown and make it a living hell for the opposition. That is what England need to do. They need to pressurise the opposition and strangle the life out of them."

With Billy Vunipola back in training after knee surgery and looking "highly motivated" and the places of Tom Curry and Jack Willis almost certainly assured, the more experienced Lewis Ludlam will also be keen to stake his claim for a back-row spot when he starts in Cardiff.

Another position in the spotlight is fly-half, with Marcus Smith starting at No.10 on Saturday for the first time since England were humbled by France in the Six Nations.

With Owen Farrell not involved, Sale's George Ford is on the bench but all eyes at the Principality Stadium will be on the Harlequins playermaker as he looks to showcase his point of difference - something which England may well need at the World Cup.

But for Healey, even if Borthwick might be leaning towards selecting all three fly-halves, he feels Farrell needs to be first choice in France: "Are they going to take all three [fly-halves]? Are they going to take Farrell, Ford and Smith? Again, that is a big old call because you're probably sacrificing a back-row selection.

"The difficulty you have is that you move him [Farrell] out of position because you've got great other options in the 10 shirt and in the 12 shirt, you don't feel like you have.

"So if Manu [Tuilagi] can't play the whole tournament, you're probably already thinking who is the next best 12 and it becomes Faz then. You're sacrificing your starter to eat your dessert and it's a real difficult decision. I would keep him in the 10 shirt and play everyone else I possibly could in the 12 shirt."

Occupying the No.12 jersey on Saturday is Leicester Tigers' Guy Porter who is partnered up with Joe Marchant.

How Borthwick moulds England's midfield ahead of their World Cup opener against Argentina on September 9th will be intriguing but once again, you get the sense Porter and Marchant will be keen to pull out all the stops this weekend as they jostle for selection.

As hinted at by Healey, Tuilagi seems to be a shoo-in when it comes to the centres as do Henry Slade and Premiership Player of the Year Ollie Lawrence but the four-time Premiership winner feels England must be flexible in this department - and in general - if they are to go deep in the tournament.

"It [the midfield] is a huge conversation point," Healey says. "Everyone who is English is always like; 'The England midfield, we need to sort it out!' I blame Rob Andrew, Will Carling and Jeremy Guscott for that because I think they played like 70 games together and I think everyone thinks that is how rugby should be played!

"You think back to 2003. Wilko [Jonny Wilkinson] was always in the 10 shirt and then you had [Will] Greenwood and then it was either [Mike] Catt or [Mike] Tindall so I think 10 and 12 need to be cemented because they are the hardest positions to defend and control games.

"Thirteen can be flexible so I would like to see Farrell and Manu at 10 and 12 and stay fit. Thirteen, I would actually pick Elliot Daly. Just because the way I saw him play and link with Farrell at Saracens before he got injured in the first half of last season, I thought it was brilliant. He gives you so many other things outside of an Ollie Lawrence although Lawrence was the Player of the Season last year.

"For England to win the World Cup, I think they need flexibility in how they play. They can't play a power game against South Africa and they can't play a pace game against New Zealand. If they found themselves against those two sides, I don't believe they could play those games but I do believe they could still beat both of those teams with the right style of play. They have got good coaching staff, great thinkers now that I think will modify [the way they play].

"I think Wigglesworth and Borthwick have the capability to do that with this squad and they are probably looking at selecting on flexibility so let's see how it pans out."

Speaking at TNT Sports' start-of-season event, Healey is excited for the new Gallagher Premiership season which kicks off on October 13th - with the new-look Premiership Cup beginning on September 8th - but there is no doubt the former England international will be engrossed by the World Cup.

With question marks still hanging over different areas of the squad - including at hooker with Jamie Blamire and Theo Dan seemingly going head-to-head in Cardiff this weekend for the secondary No.2 spot behind Jamie George - it may feel like England are an unknown entity heading into France 2023 and Healey thinks that could be an advantage.

"I think the beauty of the pundits not knowing how England are going to play is that the opposition won't know how they are going to play," Healey concludes.

"In some ways, that gives you a bit of an advantage. Everyone is playing England down. Everyone is saying they are underdogs. I've seen on some kind of poll on the internet that the England squad are all overrated per man.

"That is a great motivating factor internally for a squad when you can put things like that up and just say; 'People don't rate our chances. They don't rate you as individuals. What are you going to do about it?' Normally players bring out more than other people expect when that is the scenario."

England team to face Wales: Steward; Malins, Marchant, Porter, Cokanasiga; Smith, Care; Genge (capt), Blamire, Stuart; Ribbans, Martin; Ludlam, Pearson (uncapped), Dombrandt.

Replacements: Dan (uncapped), Rodd, Sinckler, Hill, T Willis (uncapped), Van Poortvliet, Ford, Slade.

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