By Alex Lowe
IT WAS a Millennium mauling, a Cardiff crushing, a record red dragon rout. England’s Grand Slam ambitions were ravaged by a 30-3 defeat to Wales, who retained their RBS 6 Nations title in stunning fashion.
All the England players could say afterwards was that they were well beaten and they must learn from it. The first comment was true, the second needs to be. But what are those lessons?
Experience is a quality that cannot be taught. It has to be, er, experienced. Stuart Lancaster wants England to reach the 2015 World Cup having won a Grand Slam so they understand what it takes to win all-or-nothing games. That know-how is part of Wales’ DNA after they reached the World Cup semi-final in 2011, won the Grand Slam in 2012 and the title in 2013. Lancaster is astute enough to ensure England’s rookie team – for that is what they still are – will be better for Saturday’s painful experience.
Action: Bottle the humiliation, come back stronger next year and complete the Grand Slam. Simple.
Privately, England were aggrieved at how referee Steve Walsh interpreted the breakdown. Time and again England ball-carriers would be turned over or penalised. In the end they stopped competing for the ball. That said, no excuses were made because England’s back row was outplayed.
England captain Chris Robshaw was immense for England all tournament and Tom Wood tackled himself to a standstill, but they are operating in an imbalanced back-row unit. While capable of bettering other back rows that rely on size – Ireland and South Africa, for example – they were unable to compete with Wales’ two breakdown limpets Justin Tipuric and Sam Warburton.
Action: Matt Kvesic of Worcester and Saracens’ Will Fraser are the best up-and-coming opensides and need a chance in Argentina this summer.
This is the first real setback of Graham Rowntree’s stellar coaching career. The England scrum that creaked at times against Ireland, France and Italy finally crumbled at the Millennium Stadium. The Welsh were technically superior, but they also managed referee Walsh much better.
England have sorely missed the injured Alex Corbisiero. Tom Youngs is still learning the role of hooker and there are concerns that Joe Launchbury and Geoff Parling do not offer enough power in the engine room, for all their other qualities.
Action: Prop Henry Thomas should get his chance on the summer tour, as should lock Graham Kitchener.
England scored just five tries in the whole championship, four of them against Scotland in the opening round when Owen Farrell and Billy Twelvetrees brought some fresh attacking ideas to the red-rose game.
Brad Barritt is a totem in defence for England, one of Lancaster’s generals, but he offers nothing creative in attack and the experiment of using Alex Goode as a second playmaker is not working.
The injury to Ben Morgan cost England a direct ball-carrier who could cross the gain-line and break things open.
The back three, like the back row, is safe and secure but they have asked no attacking questions. England lack vision in midfield and strike runners.
Against Wales, England’s scrum and breakdown failings meant that they had no foothold in the game from which to mount any sustained pressure.
When they did get on the front doot, England lacked composure – as they did against Italy. Manu Tuilagi’s knock-on with a huge gap in front of him was poor, but too often England forced passes or lost the ball in contact.
Action: The Billy boys. Twelvetrees should get extended game-time at 12 this summer and Vunipola at No 8. England also need to look towards the likes of Jonny May, Jonathan Joseph, Christian Wade and Kyle Eastmond.
Despite the embarrasment of the final scoreline in Cardiff and the paucity of their attacking game, there was much for England to be proud of during the Six Nations. The foundation stones of the team are in place. The character and defensive fortitude that carried them to victories over Ireland, France and Italy gives Lancaster the perfect platform from which to develop his team, add more attacking layers and come back stronger for the autumn Internationals next season.
Action: Don’t panic.
Alex Lowe’s England squad for the first Test v Argentina in Salta in June (taking likely Lions call-ups into account):
M Brown (Harlequins); J May (Gloucester), J Joseph (London Irish), B Twelvetrees (Gloucester), B Foden (Northampton); F Burns (Gloucester), D Care (Harlequins); M Vunipola (Saracens), D Hartley (Northampton), H Thomas (Sale Sharks), G Kitchener (Leicester), C Lawes (Northampton), J Haskell (Wasps), M Kvesic (Worcester), B Vunipola (Wasps).
Replacements: J Gray (Harlequins), D Wilson (Bath), J Marler (Harlequins), G Robson (Harlequins), W Fraser (Saracens), G Ford (Leicester), J Simpson (Wasps), C Wade (Wasps).
Follow Alex Lowe on Twitter @AlexMLoweLike Rugby World? Subscribe to the magazine for the latest comprehensive content.