By Ben Coles
FIRST things first; what an outstanding test match. The word brutal is commonly associated with international rugby, but rarely has it been showcased more viscerally than when the two sides met at Twickenham on Saturday. The winces and shudders from the crowd were testament to hugely combative displays from both England and Wales.
There lies the essence of a great Test match; the ability to openly respect the opposition’s excellence without malice or gritted teeth. No fan, English or Welsh, could argue that both teams had not given their all for the shirt. For that reason alone, England should take heart from their performance.
Before kick-off, it was clear to me that the result did not matter for England as long as they performed and showed a marked improvement on their last match. Even though they lost, this was comfortably their best performance to date under Stuart Lancaster. They led for a substantial portion of the game, coming within a whisker of perhaps ending it as a draw, against a side in outstanding form who reached the Rugby World Cup semi-finals last year. There is no shame in that.
To clear up the negatives, England’s main areas of concern were the scrum and the breakdown. Despite strong performances against Euan Murray and Martin Castrogiovanni, Alex Corbisiero struggled against the Lions prop Adam Jones. The first real dark afternoon in his international scrummaging career, however it is an experience he should learn from rather than forget.
Meanwhile on the deck, England had few answers to Dan Lydiate and Sam Warburton, either through matching their prowess at getting over the ball when in attack, or of developing ways to combat their skill by committing more bodies to the ruck. A testament to Warburton’s considerable skill, England found themselves pinged for holding on numerous occasions when beginning to build momentum.
No team will go a whole match without conceding a penalty at the breakdown, not even Wales, but there are ways to reduce the impact and number of offences. In addition, Chris Ashton was out of sorts on the left wing, refusing to take on the Welsh defence on the outside and persistently cutting in to no effect. So important to England thus far in his career, Charlie Sharples should be given a run in Paris.
Both areas will be scrutinised before France, but England should be emboldened with many aspects of Saturday’s match. Their new midfield combination defended forcefully, and had it not been for a wonder tackle from Warburton (in all honesty, the man is superhuman), Manu Tuilagi would have scored on his international return.
Cutting Tom Palmer earlier this week appeared a bizarre and risky move given the proficiency of England’s lineout so far in the tournament, yet Geoff Parling was brilliant in the skies. Mouritz Botha looks every inch an international rugby player, his red scrum cap blurring from one colossal tackle to hitting rucks at pace. Ben ‘The Bus’ Morgan also handled his first start well, by making in-roads against his Celtic friends.
But the ace in the pack was Owen Farrell. Patently, Farrell has ice in his veins. The young Saracen flourished moving inside to fly-half. One over eager chip kick aside, his game management, passing and also his defence were of the highest order. After three rounds, it is clear is that now England have their best team, Ashton perhaps aside. What they must do is stick with it and let it grow, through each gritty victory and agonising loss. Indeed, another win in this Six Nations would surpass many expectations.
Follow Ben Coles on Twitter @bencolesTRB