Rugby Union Expert & Columnist
Stuart Barnes' talking points: England's World Cup prep, Steve Hansen comments and more
Watch England vs Italy from St James' Park live on Sky Sports Action from 7pm on Friday
Last Updated: 02/09/19 5:36pm
England's World Cup prep, the state of play in Wales, Ireland and Scotland, plus a response to All Blacks head coach Steve Hansen all feature in Stuart Barnes' talking points this week...
1. England head to Newcastle for the final game in their series of World Cup warm-ups. You can, of course, see it here on Sky Sports. Italy were thrashed by France, who are in the same pool as England. Ergo a lot of people will be expecting a convincing England win, especially after their explosive performance against Ireland just over a week ago.
The atmosphere is bound to be excellent. It was a smart decision to bring the game to the sports-mad North East. Obviously Newcastle is, by some distance, primarily a football city but St James' Park made quite an impression on rugby fans as hosts of both last season's European Cup finals. It also did a great hosting job in the 2015 Rugby World Cup.
No doubt the fans will give England quite a send off. The question is can England provide a performance to lift the roof off this great ground?
2. Expectations will be high. It wouldn't be the first time England have run up a high score against Italy. But on the flip side, Italy have spoiled a few English parties over the years. They are yet to beat England but they have caused consternation on a few occasions.
It is hard to know which way this one is heading for a number of reasons. One; only Eddie Jones and - perhaps - his management know who will be part of their 23. The same applies to Italy. I would love to see Ben Youngs given a game to sharpen up after a few months out injured and a few years playing at a little less tempo than England requires. Two; what will England reveal/conceal?
3. When Jones talks about England being 'brutal' on the gain line, he means dynamic. Any 22 stone lump could amble up towards a defence but unless it is happening at pace the big fellow will be heading back from whence he came in quite some hurry.
England have to utilise power, not size. To do that they must be able to maintain a pace that has, at times, been beyond them in the past. It may be that we'll see an England side, irrelevant of who starts, trying to play at something akin to Kiwi pace on Friday night.
4. On the subject of New Zealand, I notice on the Sky Sports Pages that Steve Hansen was asked about my claim in my Sunday newspaper column that the All Blacks flip side to their brilliance is cynical cheating at the breakdown. He has to sell papers, retorted the All Black coach. And he is right. Calling the world's best team for most of this century a side that cheat with a degree of cynicism clearly catches the eye. Doesn't mean it's wrong though. Doesn't mean I was having a pop at New Zealand either.
The best teams are the best at all sorts of things; shadow and light. Richie McCaw may have been a sly so-and-so on the ground but that doesn't make my respect for one of the world's greatest rugby players any less. If the All Blacks do not win the World Cup this time around, be sure the side that does will know how to slow down a breakdown, legal and illegal.
5. South Africa seem one of the teams most tipped. It could be a repeat of the first Saturday's pool games [where the Boks play New Zealand] in the final. It happened in 2007 (England vs South Africa), while France met New Zealand at pool stage and the final in 2011. Hardly a novelty.
But how to assess the European challenge as we tiptoe through the warm-up matches? Results? They are unimportant, until there's a win and then suddenly it's important. Wales home win against England was such a trumpeted case. No one other than Warren Gatland mentioned that old phrase often reserved for we in the media, 'psychological importance', after the earlier Twickenham defeat.
A lot of observers thought Ireland 'needed' the win in Cardiff more than Wales after their stunning loss at Twickenham.
6. I heard Sam Warburton saying at half-time in the Wales vs Ireland game that it was a case of Ireland being a little more freshened up: "As simple as that."
Really? This was a weak Welsh team. It was a strong England team. Ireland didn't fall off the tackles they did at Twickenham but England were eulogised for the speed and accuracy of their attacking game.
Wales played around in Ponder Under drive for 40 minutes. We are trying to assess development/regression on the basis of matches against completely different teams - style and state of fitness.
7. Did Ireland over-train for the England match? Are England peaking too early? It is almost impossible for us to gauge the state of readiness. Truth be told, some of the coaches won't know for sure until the wraps come off in Japan.
8. Take Scotland for example. Hammered in Nice, scraped a home victory against the same opposition, France, a week later. Much slicker another week on against Georgia.
But are Georgia nothing but a scrum and drive? Or did Scotland make them look poor. Is Finn Russell ready to tear Ireland to pieces or did Georgia give him the freedom of Tbilisi on Saturday?
9. At time of writing I don't know the Scotland squad but I am hoping Rory Hutchinson, the Saints centre, has convinced Gregor Townsend to take him.
He was one of the sharpest attacking players in last season's Premiership and, yes, I know what Eddie Jones says about the Premiership, but Hutchinson's game looks suited to the demands of Test match rugby. He has that priceless commodity, time on the ball.
10. The big call of the weekend was the selection of young Rhys Carre ahead of Scarlets and Wales Grand Slam loosehead prop, Rob Evans. Evans will be hurting. Gatland is looking for extra dynamism, something different from one of three looseheads.
Evans himself is a fine handler of a ball. The Welsh scrum was savaged in the second half. Who knows whether this swayed Gatland? As for Rhys Patchell, the second 40 minutes was pure Patchell poetry as he booked himself a place on the plane as understudy to Dan Biggar and a third full-back in the case of an emergency.
Yes, this column has been full of question marks but that's how it is in the months before a World Cup. It'll be exclamation marks soon, I promise!