I might not like the X Factor, but there’s no escaping that the run in to this year’s world cup has resembled the TV talent competition as international squads are whittled down to their final numbers ready for the lengthy flight to the island of the long white cloud.
The WRU’s barn at the Vale and England’s base Pennyhill Park are not unlike the judges houses as players do their best to impress and leap that last hurdle to the live shows; or in this case the string of pre-RWC friendlies currently in progress.
And last week the first wave of those battling for a world cup place performed in front of a packed Twickenham audience.
For the lads lining up for both England and Wales there were those who knew only their best performance would do and others who knew a solid showing would be enough. There were also players of course, who very sadly, won’t get any closer to the world cup than that first friendly.
Best wishes go out to Morgan Stoddart who will now miss the tournament after badly breaking his leg. Morgan came through his operation at London’s Charing Cross Hospital well but won’t play any part in Wales’ plans for some months; no date has been put on his return to rugby.
Anxious times lay ahead for England also, as captain Lewis Moody picked up a knee strain which could rule him out of not just the Wales and Ireland games this month but the RWC altogether. Martin Johnson’s camp have been cagey yet realistic in their statements about Moody, taking nothing for granted yet backing the skipper to recover from the injury in time to lead the team in New Zealand.
If ‘Mad-Dog’ Moody is to miss out though, which players will this give hope to? A spot in the back row now opens up. The England management would have the difficult task of selecting a player with age and experience or youth and promise, with Tom Wood, Hendre Fourie and Chris Robshaw all putting their hands up for the spot.
…and that’s not to mention the question of captaincy and who would fill the breech; should it become available.
The injuries to Stoddart and Moody go some way to highlighting what a bruising encounter the match last Saturday was. Undeniably, some of the biggest hits came in from the centres, probably most notably from debut cap Manu Tuilagi.
The youngest brother from the great Samoan rugby stable, Manu looked perfectly undeterred by the pressure of HQ. A mature performance from the 20 year old gave plenty of food for thought and should result in another stamp in the 6 foot 1, 16 stone 7lb, centre’s passport.
Questions still exist however over Johnno’s backs division and who exactly the former world champion will take. Armitage made a good account of himself at full-back but Ben Foden will look to impress this Saturday in Cardiff.
Foden’s last visit saw a try-scoring yet ultimately losing performance in the Heineken Cup final. The Northampton star will be looking to excise his demons on his return to the Welsh capital whilst cementing his place in the number 15 jersey.
Rotation also played a key part in England’s strategies last Saturday as Banahan was tried both out on the wing and at centre, with competent displays in both positions. The Bath-man’s switch to the midfield also made way for speedy Gloucester winger Sharples, who did well but ultimately, will be lucky to secure a place in the final squad.
But what of Wales? The winning margin could’ve been greater; and whilst England were arguably happy to practice their defense for large swathes of the second half, Wales still put on a good attacking show and will have much to build on in the return fixture.
Tavis Knoyle, however short his appearance, did well to speed up the ball, something Phillips’ service had lacked at vital points in the first half. Many corners are hoping to see Warren Gatland trial the other scrum halves in these testing games.
In the back-row a return for former captain Ryan Jones. The Ospreys man did well to stabilise the scrum, which highlighted the inexperience for replaced Toby Faletau.
Another replacement who showed his worth was Luke Charteris, height like that can make all the difference in a line-out as he showed from the moment he came on.
Behind the scrum, Priestland impressed as he stepped up to the 10 berth only hours before the game. He marshaled the game well and whilst the veteran Stephen Jones might have made the difference and helped Wales secure the confidence boosting win, the fly half put in a sound performance.
Jamie Roberts also looks to be hitting the kind of form that saw him earn the player of the series crown for the Lions back in 2009; and on Saturday there’s every chance he’ll be paired with Gavin Henson.
Contentious Henson divides opinion off the field but there is no denying he is a great player when fit and in form, if he plays well on Saturday partnered with fans favourite Roberts, the nation’s confidence and expectation will grow further.
The teams will be announced imminently, though many can guess the changes that will be made. Expect a fiery encounter at the home of the dragon as Wales v England kicks off live from Cardiff on Sky Sports from 2pm, as players continue on their journey to prove they have the rugby ‘X Factor’, on the way to the World cup… not Christmas number 1!