By Alex Lowe
ENGLAND TOOK a giant leap towards their first Grand Slam in a decade with a 23-13 victory over France. The most important statistic is that Stuart Lancaster’s men found a way to win and that’s becoming a habit. Yet it was a far from perfect performance leaving much for the England management to address over the next fortnight.
Set piece problems
England are scratching out results despite their scrum and lineout underperforming. Thomas Domingo, the squat French loosehead, caused Dan Cole significant problems on Saturday, just as Cian Healy had done in Dublin. Cole’s contribution at the breakdown is integral to England but Graham Rowntree has already expressed concerns over the Leicester man’s scrummaging consistency.
Italy boast a bigger front row, which may actually help England, but Cole will then face the Wales loosehead Gethin Jenkins, who is back on form and led the destruction of the Azzurri this weekend.
England’s scrummaging issues are replicated in the lineout, which is far from being the well-oiled machine Geoff Parling dreams aspires to. An 81% success rate on their own throw is not good enough.
Defensive drills ahead
England pride themselves on their defensive performance. It is what gives them their “bounce”, as Mike Brown put it. In Dublin it earned them a victory, their line-speed squeezing the life out of Ireland. But against France it could have cost them. England missed 21 tackles, five of them in the one searing break from Wesley Fofana for the French try. As a team it was uncharacteristic. Joe Launchbury, Brad Barritt, Tom Wood and Chris Robshaw all put in huge shifts but Andy Farrell will be concerned by the way France got outside them. Italy may not pose the same kind of attacking threat but Wales will, especially if they have the extra motivation of denying England a Grand Slam.
Ash splash dried up
The Saracens wing is not himself. Chris Ashton appears to have lost his joie de vivre and he is certainly being exposed defensively. This time last year Stuart Lancaster was describing Ashton as a unique talent. Now, he is openly floating the idea of starting with Manu Tuilagi on the wing against Italy. It was not really a game for the wide men but Brown ensured he made an impact in the second half. Ashton did not.
I am not convinced by Tuilagi on the wing. Not only do we never see him under a high ball, he needs to be at the heart of the action, tearing holes in opposing midfields.
If he can do that from the wing then it would give England the chance to play an extra playmaker in Billy Twelvetrees. Otherwise, if Lancaster wants to send Ashton a message it should be in the shape of Ben Foden or the electric Christian Wade.
Lancaster denied that Owen Farrell was playing through the red mist but there were times he lost his usual cucumber-cool temperament. Farrell is not shy of a scrap. He will fly in to help a team-mate in trouble but on Saturday he appeared to be looking for bother. He played as if his eye was not quite on the ball.
Farrell’s combative, competitive nature is one of his biggest strengths but only when channeled constructively. Farrell seemed to be distracted by England’s desire to match the French physicality.
He is is still my Lions fly-half for this summer but he cannot allow himself to get over-hyped.
And yet England still won…
England’s character, determination and collective belief kept them in the game until they took control in the final quarter. Wood’s performance as his best in an England jersey. Chris Robshaw was named man of the match again and Tuilagi came out handsomely on top of Mathieu Bastareaud, it was a personal duel which served as a microcosm for the game itself.
For all the things that went against England, they are rapidly developing a reputation for being able to adapt and problem-solve on the hoof.
It was not long ago that England players looked up to Martin Johnson in the coaching seats seeking instructions. England are now very well prepared and capable of winning matches in different ways.
Tuesday training sessions are key to that. England’s 1st XV are pitched against a strong 2nd XV and they play out different match scenarios, often posing tougher questions to each other than they would face in a Test match.
That strength in depth allowed England to win the game in the final quarter, with their bench making an impact in stark contrast to the French replacements.
There is much to work on but also much to be encouraged by.
Follow Alex Lowe on Twitter @AlexMLowe