Finn Russell These constituents are clever!
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England go into the World Cup deservedly ranked as joint second favourites because their good is very, very good.
At their best they worry New Zealand and South Africa. No question about that. Run into England in the form they produced twice against Ireland this year and you lose. No question.
Where the question does arise is in the ability of Eddie Jones’ side to deliver a consistently high performance week in week out.
Having Argentina and France as their last two pool opponents means that for England to lift the trophy they need to beat five of the world’s top nations on consecutive weekends.
Therein lies my concern. England have not played one particular system consistently enough to suggest they are more than a team who could be absolutely sensational in a given game and clunky as hell in the next.
That still gives them more than a puncher’s chance of reclaiming the World Cup for the first time since we brought it home from Australia in 2003.
But it leaves them vulnerable to an opponent able to stifle their ambition and feed on their frustration, as Wales did so ruthlessly in the Six Nations earlier this year.
I actually think it is good for England’s headspace that they go in not as favourites, not as No1 ranked nation in the world, but as a side capable of a No1-in-the-world performance.
This is the most open World Cup of them all. As Jones conceded in Miyazaki on Saturday it could be the first to be won by a team losing a match.
No side captained by Owen Farrell will contemplate losing any game, but for England to avoid such a fate is going to require a clarity of thinking in selection that has not always been their hallmark at World Cups.
They have a set-piece that can be very good, a crack breakdown unit, a wealth of strike runners and some sharp minds pulling the strings. But key for me is what they do at fly-half and inside-centre.
I maintain that in 1999 Clive Woodward got it wrong by not picking me at 10 and Jonny Wilkinson at 12.
In 2007 England tried four different combinations in a muddled, white-knuckle ride of a campaign. In 2011 they wobbled when the pressure really came on and changed course.
Then there was 2015 and Sam Burgess, with one previous start to his name, thrown in at 12 for the pivotal game against Wales. We all know how that ended.
This time round I am clear that England’s best option for the big contests is to go with George Ford at 10 and have Owen Farrell alongside him with line-buster Manu Tuilagi at 13.
Ford has taken his game to another level this year and as a playmaker now rivals the best in the business.
With that 10-12-13 combo Jones pools his resources and England ask way more questions in attack.
It gives them a potent blend of power and distribution. Deliver that and they can be heroes – providing it’s not just for one day.
PAUL GRAYSON’S HOME NATION GUIDE
Key man:Billy Vunipola. World-class carrier who gives England go-forward against any opposition. Injury-prone so keeping him fit and on the park will be near to the top of Eddie Jones’ wishlist.
World Cup threat rating:8 (out of 10)
Verdict:World No.1 ranked nation yet
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