In Review

Rugby World Cup: is Robshaw to blame for England defeat?

Pundits debate why Robshaw chose to kick for the corner allowing Wales to hold on for a famous victory

Two days after Wales' incredible victory over England at Twickenham in the Rugby World Cup fans are still debating the moment that could have changed the game – the decision of England captain Chris Robshaw to kick for touch rather than goal with three minutes remaining.

England had led by ten points but Wales mounted a stirring comeback in the final minutes, and drew level after a wonderfully worked try from Gareth Davies. Minutes later the brilliant Dan Biggar scored a mammoth penalty from the halfway line to give Wales the lead, but there was still plenty of time left for the home side.

But when England duly won a penalty 22 yards out most people expected Owen Farrell, who had been the equal of Biggar with his boot, to kick for goal and take the three points on offer. But the Welsh infringement was on the touchline, making the kick a tricky one and so after a conversation with his pack, Robshaw chose to kick for touch, take the line out and go for a matchwinning try.

The gamble failed as Wales first forced England into touch and then forced a knock-on before seeing out the final seconds to cue wild celebrations.

So was Robshaw to blame for England's defeat?

Matt Dickinson of The Times believes Robshaw's decision will "haunt his team long after they have been kicked out of their own World Cup".

There was a huddle between the senior players, but "when all is done, we will come back to that critical juncture... and know we saw proof of a muddled, confused team, lacking conviction in themselves, their methods".

After the match, ITV pundit Jonny Wilkinson looked deflated but offered some support, and said that he "didn't hate" the decision to go for the corner. However, as he fellow pundit David Flatman later pointed out, poor execution at the lineout was what did for England. 

Brian Moore of the Daily Telegraph agrees, and is typically blunt in his assessment. The decision has to be regarded as the wrong one, because it did not pay off, he says.

"A failed goal kick would still have seen England get the ball from a Welsh dropout and a successful one would have seen them receive the kick off with one last chance to win or kick the ball off the park to draw.

"When all is said and done the decision to go for touch and drive the lineout was worsened by ineptitude. The throw to the front closed down England's options and made it far easier for Wales to drive the maul into touch. A shift drive, which alters the point of contact, would have opened up England's driving options and it is mystifying that this or another, deeper, throw was not tried."

In going for the corner Robshaw ignored the "bigger picture", says Ruaidhri O'Connor in the Irish Independent. "Owen Farrell would have been faced with a tough kick, but he'd nailed everything so far. There were three minutes on the clock, so even if they'd missed, there was time to go again."

It was a "brave" decision says former England centre Jeremy Guscott of the BBC. "He understood the consequences of the decision and backed himself and his mates to get it done, it failed and now they must take the criticism coming their way. Yes, it would have been a great decision if it worked, but it didn't."

But there was some support from an unlikely source – former Wales skipper Gareth Thomas. "For me, Chris Robshaw's call to go for the try was the right one," he writes in the Times. "I would have done the same; a lineout within five metres of the Welsh line and an English pack that would have thought if they cannot get over the line, at least they can keep possession and keep going. Who would have foreseen that Luke Charteris and the Welsh pack would ultimately disrupt and push them into touch?"

England vs Wales: who will win key battles at Twickenham?

25 September

The biggest match of the Rugby World Cup so far, and possibly the defining clash of the tournament, takes place at Twickenham on Saturday night as the hosts England face their bitter rivals Wales.

It is a match that neither side can afford to lose, as only one of the two countries is likely to emerge from the 'pool of death' which also features Australia.

England coach Stuart Lancaster has pulled a major selection surprise by opting to fight fire with fire, and picking his beefiest midfield trio to counter Wales's muscle. Fly half Geroge Ford has been replaced by Owen Farrell, Sam Burgess has been picked in the absence of Jonathan Joseph but will play at inside centre with Brad Barritt moving to 13.

Opinion is split on Lancaster's tactics, with some of the opinion that Wales coach Warren Gatland has lured him into a game of what critics call 'Warrenball', with brawn rated more highly than brains. Others believe he has made the right choice.

What is in little doubt is that it will be a titanic battle around the fringes of the scrum.

But who will win on Saturday and why?

The centres:

Burgess and Barritt will present a formidable barrier to the Welsh, but there are questions about their creativity, while Burgess will be making only his second start for England and will have to contend with Jamie Roberts.

"Burgess is a deliciously violent player," says Rick Broadbent in The Times. "Roberts is the hub of the Welsh attack with his straight-line, battering-ram runs. Both are good leaders, but Burgess has one international start to Roberts's 70."

Fly half:

Golden boy Ford was supposed to be England's trump card, but he has been dropped in favour of the brawnier Farrell, and Twickenham may need to be convinced he is the right man for the job. His opposite number Dan Biggar will also be under pressure as Wales's backs are depleted by injury.

"The kicking game will also be vital, and while England have improved their work in the air, Wales do possess one of the very best kick-and-chasers in Dan Biggar," says Steve James of the Daily Telegraph.

The back rows:

A key area with several big match ups. Sam Warburton, the Wales skipper and openside, is on a world cup mission after his red card in the 2011 semi-final. His opposite number England captain Chris Robshaw is still dogged by criticism of his abilities. The match could prove career-defining, says Rick Broadbent.

Billy Vunipola at No8 will be up against his cousin Taulupe Faletau while Wales tackling machine Dan Lydiate faces Tom Wood who will need to be at his best to "assuage fears about England's breakdown cover".

The front five:

England's scrum did not function well against Fiji, but Wales look vulnerable. Samson Lee is injured so alongside Gethin Jenkins in the front row is Thomas Francis with three caps while hooker Scott Baldwin is a relative newcomer too. England's front row looks more settled, even though form is an issue.

Onto the second row, where "Alun-Wyn Jones has a knee strain, Bradley Davies has scarcely played for months," laments Wales online. But England "are not the fearsome pack of old, with a dodgy scrum and lacking presence in the tackle area".

The jokers:

With all the focus on midfield, the back threes of both teams have been overlooked in the build up, but it is here that the superstars lurk. England full back Mike Brown and Wales wing George North can shred defences, while England's wingers Johnny May and Anthony Watson were in fine form ahead of the tournament. England's wingers got off lightly against giant Fijian Nemani Nadolo, but North poses a similar threat.

On the other wing Wales though have dropped Alex Cuthbert for 21-year-old Hallam Amos, and Liam Williams has a tough act to follow, standing in for Leigh Halfpenny at fullback, but he has the chutzpah to unsettle the English.

Other factors:

England are at home and that is "a huge factor, whatever anyone says and however many Welsh fans might be there", says Steve James of the Telegraph. Meanwhile the English bench looks "so much stronger" than the Welsh. However, there is some optimism in the Valleys. The Wales bench "was looking a little light of game changers but with [Justin] Tipuric, Lee, Ken Owens and Luke Charteris, Wales have options to call upon that could make a difference", says Wales online.

Who will win:

If England "can rediscover the spirit they showed in the Six Nations then victory is theirs", says ESPN, and in front of a packed Twickenham it would be a surprise if their spirit was lacking.

Rick Broadbent of the Times, scores England marginally higher than Wales, and the bookies favour the home side with Wales available at a generous 3-1.

 

Wales vs England: Burgess and Farrell smack of short-termism

24 September

England rugby coach Stuart Lancaster has confirmed the controversial selections of Owen Farrell and Sam Burgess in the side to face Wales at Twickenham in the World Cup on Saturday. The England team also includes Billy Vunipola at No8, with Ben Morgan injured.

Lanceaster has dropped his usual fly half, the more creative George Ford, in favour of Farrell and has opted to replace Jonathan Joseph with rookie rugby league convert Burgess, who will play at inside centre with Brad Barritt moving to outside centre.

"The Farrell-Burgess-Barritt combination – the most muscular trio available to the head coach Stuart Lancaster – has been chosen in anticipation of the looming gainline war at Twickenham," says The Guardian.

When news of the formation change there was widespread incredulity, but many observers are now embracing the idea, although it appears alarmingly short-termist.

It is clear that England have decided to match Wales for power in midfield in an attempt to nullify their opponent's gameplan. "If it works against Wales at Twickenham on Saturday, Lancaster will have pulled off a masterstroke," says Owen Slot of The Times.

But what happens then? "This side may have the beating of Wales, but they will not win England the World Cup... England's massive defensive wall is a credible antidote to the Welsh, but Australia, their opponents the week after, have a far more intelligent and varied set of attacking options."

What's more "there is more uncertainty now less cohesion" within the squad, and dropping the mercurial Ford will not help his confidence. The fly half is said to be "devastated and gutted" by his omission, reports the Daily Telegraph.

But former Lions coach Ian McGeechan says picking Farrell was "logical" and the inclusion of Burgess "shrewd". Writing in the Telegraph he notes that when they came on against Fiji "they immediately brought a directness that England had been lacking".

"It is going to be vital for England to win that physical battle in midfield, as well as dominate territory and get their big runners on the front foot," he adds.

But the Welsh will be up for it. Another Telegraph columnist, former Welsh captain Jonathan Davies calls it an "all or nothing" game, possibly the biggest ever between the two sides. Wales "have a much better chance of beating England than they do Australia," he says. "There is one huge game in this Wales team and I think this might be it."

Another Valleys legend, Gareth Thomas, explains in The Times how much the Welsh want to win. "I used to love playing for Wales and to have a hatred for the English jersey showed how much I loved Wales, my country. It was, and is, a fierce rivalry and as a competitor you had to hate them... to beat England was to give voice to a nation, to create history."

England vs Wales: selecting Farrell, Barritt and Burgess is a huge gamble

23 September

England rugby coach Stuart Lancaster is poised to spring a massive selection surprise ahead of England's colossal showdown with Wales in the Rugby World Cup at Twickenham on Saturday, by dropping fly half George Ford and pairing musclebound centres Sam Burgess and Brad Barritt for the first time.

Owen Farrell will come in at number ten instead of Ford, and the untested Burgess will join Barritt in midfield after injury to Jonathan Joseph.

But the selection has rugby pundits scratching their heads and the Daily Telegraph describes it as the "single most radical upheaval of Stuart Lancaster's time in charge".

"The stakes were already high for this weekend. They have risen considerably with this selection," says the paper. "The desire for width and variety has been replaced by a stern, muscle-bound line-up. England have opted for the full-metal jacket approach, spooked perhaps by the physicality of the Fijians last Friday."

England were unconvincing against Fiji in the opening match of the tournament but narrowly secured an all-important bonus point. Wales, who beat Uruguay on Sunday, were not a great deal better, and suffered yet more injury problems despite fielding a second-string side.

But even though Wales will go to Twickenham shorn of first choice scrum half Rhys Webb, fullback Leigh Halfpenny and centre Jonathan Davies, and with doubts over key personnel inlcuding replacement fullback Liam Williams and prop Samson Lee, the England coach appears to have adapted his team to counter Wales's physicality.

The match-up between rugby league convert Burgess and his opposite number, mammoth Lions centre Jamie Roberts, "promises to be seismic midfield showdown", says The Times, which also calls Lancaster's decision the "biggest selection gamble of his career".

The selection would appear to suggest that "England will look to kick into the space behind Wales's flat defensive line and send in the heavy-duty runners", adds the paper.

But many see the selection as a defensive one. "Against a Wales side liable to take the most direct route available, that kind of formidable physical barrier clearly has its attractions, if not necessarily in the pace department," says The Guardian.

The centre combination in untested and will be the 14th different line-up of Lancaster's reign. "This fixture could define the fortunes of both sides at this World Cup; woe betide the gambler who mislays his shirt," warns the paper.

World Cup-winning coach Clive Woodward warns that the changes could limit supply to England's wingers and fullback, but believes that the home side will still emerge triumphant.

By selecting a less creative midfield trio "England could be reducing the effectiveness of their back three – probably the team's strongest unit," he writes in the Daily Mail. "But the result is what matters and I believe whatever midfield England opt for they will beat Wales."

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