HEAD coach Stuart Lancaster has warned George Ford that his position as England’s first choice fly-half is coming under growing pressure from Owen Farrell.
Ford has been retained for Saturday’s match with Ireland at Twickenham knowing he must deliver against the RBS Six Nations champions if he is to start the World Cup opener against Fiji on September 18.
Operating behind a backpedalling pack, the 22-year-old struggled in the 25-20 defeat by France in Paris and has been told by Lancaster that Farrell is pressing hard for a return as England’s playmaker in chief.
“It’s tight. George is in the position at the moment, but Owen has been training exceptionally well. He is back to his very best for me,” Lancaster said.
“His defence, his game management and his attacking game have been the best I’ve seen. He’s pushing hard.
“We’ve a lot of faith in George because he has been exceptional for us, but this is another big game for him because Ireland have a very good kicking game and our kicking game needs to be spot on.”
Ford, who seized Farrell’s position as England’s preferred conductor during the Six Nations, knows he can not afford to under-perform against Ireland.
“It’s tight. Owen is constantly going out there and trying to be a better player. He’s a great trainer and leader in the team,” Ford said.
“He goes out there and plays consistently well and I see that as a positive.
“I have to raise my game. That’s a great position to be in because you always want someone pushing you.”
Brad Barritt and Jonathan Joseph will roam outside Ford in the 13th centre pairing of Lancaster’s reign.
It will be the first time they have started together, although they formed makeshift midfields midway through Tests against New Zealand and South Africa.
Barritt has recovered from a calf problem to take his place at inside centre for his first appearance since finishing as the bloodied hero of last autumn’s victory over Australia.
“We should expect a strong performance from both. They are both high-quality players,” Lancaster said.
“If Brad had been fit for the Six Nations he would have started alongside Joseph on the back of what he’d done in the autumn.”
No 8 Ben Morgan will make his second appearance since breaking his leg on club duty with Gloucester in January while Geoff Parling returns to the second row in an effort to improve the line-out that malfunctioned against France in Paris.
The promotion of Parling at the expense of Joe Launchbury, who is included on the bench, is a reflection of the Exeter lock’s setpiece expertise and Lancaster hints that the Launchbury-Courtney Lawes partnership could be broken up for the World Cup.
“Joe’s not happy about being on the bench. That selection is still to play out,” Lancaster said.
Wales coach Warren Gatland began the mind games after stating on Monday that his team were “a little bit more settled and more comfortable” with their “experience and combinations” than Pool A rivals England, who he also claimed “are not 100 per cent sure of where they are going”.
Lancaster, however, refused to return fire.
“My personal way is to just focus on us. I don’t get involved personally or anything beyond that,” Lancaster said.
“We only concentrate on what we can control. We have had situations like this in the past and we’ve very much stuck to our principles and stuck to our guns. It’s done well for us.”
England team to play Ireland at Twickenham: M Brown (Harlequins); A Watson (Bath), J Joseph (Bath), B Barritt (Saracens), J May (Gloucester); G Ford (Bath), B Youngs (Leicester); J Marler (Harlequins), T Youngs (Leicester), D Cole (Leicester), C Lawes (Northampton), G Parling (Exeter), T Wood (Northampton), C Robshaw (Harlequins, capt), B Morgan (Gloucester)
Replacements: J George (Saracens), M Vunipola (Saracens), K Brookes (Northampton), J Launchbury (Wasps), B Vunipola (Saracens), R Wigglesworth (Saracens), O Farrell (Saracens), S Burgess (Bath).
Scotland coach Vern Cotter has confirmed neither Blair Cowan or John Barclay will live out their World Cup dream after controversially axing both from his 31-man squad.
It was reported yesterday morning that the back-row pair had failed to make the cut for the tournament which kicks off later this month and the Dark Blues confirmed the news as Cotter unveiled his squad at Edinburgh University’s Old College Quad.
Cowan’s omission in particular is a major surprise after the New Zealand-born London Irish forward started all five of the Scot’s matches in this year’s Six Nations.
Barclay, meanwhile, ended a near-two year exile from the squad when he was recalled for the warm-up clashes with Ireland and Italy.
But despite scoring in Saturday’s 48-7 romp at Murrayfield over the Azzurri, the on-form Scarlets No 7 has also been left out of Cotter’s travelling party.