England are set to reshape their midfield if Jonathan Joseph is ruled out of this weekend’s World Cup match against Wales with Owen Farrell set to start at fly-half and rugby league convert Sam Burgess in midfield, British media said on Wednesday.
Farrell, Brad Barritt and Burgess ran together in training on Monday and it has since emerged that Joseph suffered a chest injury during England’s opening 35-11 win over Fiji at Twickenham last Friday.
Bath centre Joseph had until Wednesday to prove his fitness, with England coach Stuart Lancaster and Wales counterpart Warren Gatland both due to name their teams on Thursday.
George Ford was England’s first choice fly-half in the Six Nations but Farrell, who plays alongside Barritt at Saracens — is a reliable goal-kicker and defensively sound, if not as threatening with ball in hand.
The theory appears to be that England need as many powerful ball carriers and sound defenders as possible to wear down Wales and make it difficult for the likes of Jamie Roberts to punch holes in their line.
Under Gatland, Wales often opt for a 14-man defence strung out across the pitch with the full-back covering the space behind.
This has led to the view that teams are better off trying to force a path through the Welsh line rather than try to go round it.
England beat Wales 21-16 in the Six Nations in Cardiff in February, a match where Joseph scored a fine try but where the win was built on the grinding work of the visitors’ ball-carriers.
“This change to the England midfield is a big call,” wrote Clive Woodward, England’s 2003 World Cup-winning coach, in a column for Wednesday’s Daily Mail.
“There is no such thing as a wrong selection if it gets the desired result and England will not have made such changes lightly, even though I assume Jonathan Joseph would have started had he not picked up an injury.”
Woodward added: “When you have injuries it’s often best to keep other changes to a minimum.
“Henry Slade is certainly the nearest like-for-like player England have for Joseph and his selection would have been the call that minimised the changes,” explained Woodward, himself a former England centre.
“But the result is what matters and I believe whatever midfield England opt for they will beat Wales.”
As for Ford, if he is dropped from it may be because of concerns that England lost their way tactically midway through the match against Fiji before the likes of Farrell, Burgess and replacement No 8 Billy Vunipola came off the bench.
If Bath’s Burgess is in the XV to face against Wales, it will be just his second Test start, with the former rugby league star having so far played just 112 minutes of international rugby union since changing codes 10 months ago.
Should Burgess line-up alongside Barritt, it will be the 14th different centre pairing deployed by Lancaster in 44 Tests as England coach — a sign of the problems he has had in fielding a settled midfield.
Wales beat Uruguay 54-9 in their opening match of a World Cup ‘Pool of Death’ which also features two-time champions Australia and means at least one of the three major rugby nations will suffer a first-round exit as only the top two sides go through to the quarter-finals.