Toby Flood’s cross-channel switch next season means England must now decide on who to back up Owen Farrell going into the RWC 2015.
Farrell, England’s number one, has only missed the Six Nations match against Italy this year since being used as a replacement against South Africa in November 2012.
Although criticism remains over his ability to open up England’s attack, the Saracen is the clear frontrunner in the position due to lack of clear competition around him.
Flood indeed was Farrell’s main rival, along with being England’s most experience player during the November Tests with his 60 caps.
All but confirmed, Flood’s move to France – most likely to Toulouse – will render him unavailable for selection from next season such is England’s policy with overseas players.
The decision to be made by England head coach Stuart Lancaster is whether to use Flood in next year’s Six Nations or to start developing a secondary and tertiary fly-half option ahead of the next global showpiece.
There’s little point in having Flood occupy a spot that he will be no longer able to fill over the next two years, unless England’s selection policy changes and the likes of Delon and Steffon Armitage are allowed back into the fold.
Flood’s departure alone based on his vast experience is a blow and aged 28 it is a surprise to not see him wait until after the RWC to make the move abroad, but he must have his reasons.
Which leaves a list of four candidates aged 26 or under and one over that mark to step in.
Bath’s George Ford chose to leave Leicester Tigers last season because Flood remained in his path to a starting spot. It’s a move that appears to be working for him, playing behind an improved pack and with Bath now third in the Aviva Premiership and in good form.
A former IRB Junior World Player of the Year, Ford at times has been outstanding for Bath this season with his kicking game and playmaking ability. He is not a defensive liability and his increased time on the pitch rather than the bench is clearing working to his advantage.
Just 20 years of age, Ford is at the same point now as when Farrell made his debut in the 2012 Six Nations. Showcasing a similar maturity, based on current form Ford must be given an opportunity.
Form indeed is the reason why Freddie Burns’ chances of a place have diminished. Gloucester’s troubles this season have been well documented – they laboured to victory on Sunday over bottom side Worcester – and Burns has paid the price by being dropped for Billy Twelvetrees.
An open target for Leicester Tigers to replace Flood, switching to Welford Road could be a career-making move for the 23-year-old working behind one of Europe’s more dominant packs and buying into an ethos at Leicester that few clubs can match.
The problem for Burns is that currently his form has been so low that by the time he arrives at the Tigers, other players might be established ahead of him with England. Nigel Davies choosing to field England centre Twelvetrees out of position at number ten ahead of Burns last Sunday hardly sends a positive message.
The latest bolter for the position is Exeter’s Henry Slade. Fresh from winning the IRB Junior World Championship earlier this year with the England U20 side, Slade has emerged from a Heineken Cup double header against Toulon with plenty of credit.
Slade was opposite first Jonny Wilkinson and then Matt Giteau over the last fortnight – two players who have done alright in their time – and impressed with his composure. An outside chance for the Six Nations, time is against Slade to nail down a spot in the squad with Gareth Steenson still ahead of him at Exeter, but his talent is undeniable.
Which leaves Danny Cipriani. Though England’s finest available attacker at fly-half, defensive lapses have continually hounded the Sale Sharks pivot. His work there is improving, however, and his control on matches is also growing.
It has been five long years since Cipriani last pulled on an England shirt and since then his career has been erratic until settling down at Sale this season.
Any recall for the former London Wasps and Melbourne Rebels player will only come after greater consistency over time, and the recent clamour over his form following a 28-point haul over a depleted Oyonnax team and victory over struggling London Irish is hardly a basis for re-inclusion at Test level.
Should the 26-year-old begin dominating matches against Leicester, Saracens, Northampton and the like, then the perspective on him will change.
Northampton’s Stephen Myler, the 29-year-old with big game experience in the Heineken Cup and who started in Argentina for England is also an option.
For now Ford seems likely to lead the race, but there’s no doubt that Flood’s decision has left Lancaster a little in the lurch. Should an injury occur to Farrell before the trip to Paris on the Six Nations opening weekend, then the situation will be of great concern.
- Planet Rugby