The biggest talking point this week has been the uninspiring performance by the English throughout the World Cup. A mediocre bonus point against Fiji, an eye opening defeat to Wales and an embarrassment by the Wallabies left England tumbling out of the competition with one game to go. The final game in their lacklustre campaign is against Uruguay, a fixture which has been described by most pundits as ‘a dead rubber’.
Lancaster has been slated since the defeat against Wales and even more so after the thrashing by Cheika’s Wallabies, but what shocked rugby fans the most is his inability to utilise the options he has at hand. If not bringing Steffon Armitage or Nick Abendanon wasn’t enough, he also continually left out one of England’s rising stars in Henry Slade.
Slade was lucky enough to make the 31 man squad but will only make his World Cup debut today; in a game that means absolutely nothing. Slade’s favoured position is at out half, for the Exeter Chiefs, but he is known in the England squad as a utility back and can cover almost every position in the backline. A utility back is not a label that professional rugby players like to have. Brian O’Driscoll said prior to this World Cup that as Luke Fitzgerald is seen as a utility back by Joe Schmidt, it would increase his chances of being selected in the squad, but hamper his chances of starting. That is not to say that Henry Slade should’ve started out half for England because an entire nation knows George Ford would have had that sewn up if it wasn’t for Andy Farrell’s influence on the squad. The 2015 Aviva Premiership player of the year was the only player who made them look like potential World Champions in last years’ six nations and throughout their warm up matches. Not to mention he made Leinster look like schoolboys when playing for Bath in the Aviva.
The big question was why wasn’t Henry Slade the 23rd man? Over the last few weeks Sam Burgess has had a torrid time from the media and has constantly been slated for his inability to convert from league to union. Burgess was handed his chance from coming off the bench against Fiji and actually impressed with his direct running. However, a 20 minute cameo against a tiring Fiji team doesn’t warrant a starting position against Wales in a must win match. Brad Barritt was even pushed out of position to create room for the union newbie. Jonathan Joseph was injured and as Barritt is the defensive leader in the backline, he had to start. The simple option would’ve been to keep Barritt at 12 and bring in Slade to outside centre. Once again Lancaster demonstrated why he shouldn’t be in contention for a Lions coaching role.
Slade even lost out on the number 23 to out and out fullback Alex Goode. Following their defeat to the Welsh and leading up to one of the biggest games in English history, a game that would leave them being the first host nation to be knocked out in the group stages, Lancaster was under huge pressure. England needed to throw the kitchen sink at Australia and after the analysis of the Welsh game it was clear that Sam Burgess didn’t know how to defend at inside centre. Gordon D’Arcy even went as far as saying his lateral movement was abysmal.
After Slammin’ Sam didn’t step up to the centre stage, the English were crying out for a saviour. Some will say that saviour could’ve been George Ford; others will say it should’ve been Henry Slade. What Slade would’ve given England is two key options: 1. a second distributor 2. An alternative kicking option. Slade has proven his distribution skills at Exeter over the last few years and the 22 year old would’ve slotted straight into the English system at outside centre and even at first receiver, had either Farrell or Ford not been there. Secondly his left foot would provide a kicking option at either side for England and allowed Mike Brown to chase any high balls.
Slade has been finally handed his opportunity against the Uruguayans and he won’t disappoint. Although Lancaster has chosen three out half’s in three different positions, Slade should still step up and give his countries fans a little bit of hope for the future of English rugby.