For the first time in six years, two current Falcons were in an England team today. Though the annual Twickenham meeting with the Barbarians isn’t a test match, and the England XV contained perhaps only one first choice player in Joe Launchbury, it was a great opportunity for Kieran Brookes to start his Northampton career as a World Cup player.
For our other man in a white shirt, Mark Wilson, today was a chance to announce himself on the national stage after two outstanding seasons since the Falcons returned to the Premiership.
Brookes was joined in the front row by Matt Mullan and Luke Cowan-Dickie, both also battling for World Cup spots, while Wilson backed up the scrum with Josh Beaumont and Jack Clifford in a back row that could yet take the field for England in 2019.
Both Wilson and Brookes made their presence felt early on with some tackles, as the home players looked to press their World Cup claims.
Cowan-Dickie’s great line into a gap, drawing in the last defender allowed Marland Yarde to score the first try after ten minutes. Both Wilson and Brookes were involved in the build-up to the try; Brookes in particular popped a nice pass to Henry Slade so the Exeter man could unleash his team-mate for the assist. Brad Thorn, the Barbarians’ soon-to-retire captain, got the invitational team on the scoreboard with an unconverted try.
Thomas Waldrom, on the Barbarians side but not completely out of contention for the World Cup after a fantastic season alongside Slade and Cowan-Dickie at Sandy Park, was sent to the bin in the middle of the half and England took advantage by driving a lineout towards the line. Leicester captain Ed Slater touched down the try, and Danny Cipriani kicked the conversion to put England 17-5 up after 22 minutes.
The third try, just before Waldrom returned to the field, was made mainly by some lovely feet by Elliot Daly, dancing past the Barbarians’ full-back before setting up Clifford to run in unopposed. If England want a like-for-like replacement for Jonathan Joseph in the World Cup squad, Daly must be the leading contender.
It took just over half an hour for the bonus-point try (were this a league) to come, Yarde finding himself trapped on the left touchline and dribbling inside for Christian Wade to run onto, putting England 31-5 up. Not bad against a strong Barbarians side, many of whom beat an Ireland side containing more first-choice players than England’s last week.
Yarde and Wade combined again just minutes later for try number five, Daly’s dummy run confusing the defence so Cipriani could find Yarde, and the Harlequin passed to Wade on the right for the Wasp to run in behind the posts.
Wade almost got a ten-minute hat-trick, but was hauled down a metre out but his one-handed offload to Cipriani. Brookes played a big part on the try, having legged it after Daly’s long kick he tackled David Smith and contributed to England turning over in the 22. The half-time score was 45-5, almost as many after half a game as England scored against France in the Six Nations.
Both Newcastle boys had shown up well in the first forty, Brookes probably more obviously despite there being few scrums, but Wilson was also quietly putting in a decent shift in attack and defence.
After half-time, it took less than two minutes for England to bring up 50 points. Slade hung on Cowan-Dickie’s shoulder as the hooker drove forward, and as the hooker was tackled he offloaded to his fellow Chief, Slade showing-and-going over the line.
The Barbarians had a rare attack and as England tackled in the left corner, George Smith dropped his pass to Waldrom but the Exeter number eight picked up off the floor and dived over from a metre out. Referee George Clancy went upstairs (actually I guess it’s outside) to check Smith’s pass, and though it looked to me to be backwards, the officials deemed the evidence inconclusive and so the try was given. The difference was back to 40 points at 52-12.
It threatened to be a short-lived comeback as Wade stormed after a long kick and beat the defender to pick up, but trying to touchdown one-handed, the Wasps winger lost control and dropped the ball forwards, missing out on a hat-trick.
Things quietened down for a little while, before Cipriani made a great tackle on David Smith to prevent another Barbarians try, but England then came upfield. Wilson and replacements Jon Fisher and Shane Geraghty combined to set up Josh Beaumont to race in for another England try.
Thorn’s last act in the game, with 70 minutes gone, was a big late tackle on Slade that saw the former All Black second-rower shown a yellow card, the big man laughing as he walked to the benches. In context of a non-competitive game and Thorn’s impending retirement, that wasn’t too bad, as the tackle wasn’t really dangerous.
Wade finally got the hat-trick try his attacking threat deserved with six minutes to go, chipping ahead and battling with Ugo Monye for the loose ball before touching down just over the line. Cipriani’s conversion brought the score to 66-12.
After the kick, commentator Stuart Barnes named Cipriani as his man of the match, a fair choice after a perfect kicking display (one penalty and nine conversions as well as a try) and a creative show with the ball by the Sale fly-half. Cipriani’s selection at fly-half with Slade at centre suggests that he was in pole position to be a third ten in the World Cup squad if Stuart Lancaster is sensible and decides to take cover for George Ford and Owen Farrell, and he did his chances no harm this afternoon.
Cipriani had the last word, dummying his way in for England’s tenth try down the left. Converting his own try, Cipriani made the final score 73-12.
The Barbarians did not play well, perhaps due to many playing in Limerick on Thursday night, perhaps due to not having lots of time to train together, although in the past the latter hasn’t stopped Barbarians teams beating stronger international teams than this England side, indeed it didn’t in Ireland last week. However, England were very good at starving their opponents of possession and took their chances clinically.
Tougher tests lie ahead in the World Cup warm-ups and then the tournament itself, but for now, Lancaster et al will be satisfied with most of what they saw today and several players provided food for thought, notably Wade, Cipriani, Slater, Cowan-Dickie and Daly.
Mark Wilson played the whole 80 minutes and was industrious throughout, getting himself into breakdown after breakdown and making a couple of good runs. Surely, my fellow Geordie Cumbrian will finally be in the Saxons squad next season.
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