Alan Watkins: Defeat produces changes England have to live with

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The Independent Online

This is a column which, as a matter of policy, supports the underdog. But it is a little early in the day to start showing sympathy for England. Whatever they say about deserving to lose to Ireland, their pride has clearly suffered a mighty blow. My native land is in for a hard time in South-west London on 20 March. And, if England beat France in Paris a week later, they could still win the championship.

This is a column which, as a matter of policy, supports the underdog. But it is a little early in the day to start showing sympathy for England. Whatever they say about deserving to lose to Ireland, their pride has clearly suffered a mighty blow. My native land is in for a hard time in South-west London on 20 March. And, if England beat France in Paris a week later, they could still win the championship.

This, however, would depend on a failure by Ireland to build up some really big scores in their two remaining matches, against Italy and Scotland. It may all come down to points difference, as it has done - reasonably enough - only since 1993. Before then, there were joint champions, triple champions and even, in 1973, quintuple champions.

The common feature of both England v Ireland and Wales v France was the way in which the losing side persisted in drawing attention to the weaker aspects of their game. In the Twickenham match, England did not seem able to grasp that they were being comprehensively overwhelmed in the line-out by Paul O'Connell, Malcolm O'Kelly and, not least, Simon Easterby. When this happens, the temptation is to blame the poor old hooker, in this case Steve Thompson.

In the past, in this column, I have criticised two aspects of the modern game in relation to the line-out. One is to place too much responsibility on the thrower. The other is, connectedly, to regard the line-out as a guaranteed source of possession, comparable to the scrum. It cannot, in the nature of things, be like that; and I was glad to see that Saturday's events proved the point that I have been trying to make for some time.

In these circumstances, the sensible course is to try something else. England could have shortened the line-out or thrown to the front. Indeed, when Mark Regan (who replaced Thompson) tried this latter, now unfashionable ploy, the result was almost a try for Regan, frustrated only by a fine tackle from O'Kelly.

The England forwards, however, should not have to take all or even most of the blame. There was also something very odd about England's backs. There is an inclination to blame Paul Grayson simply for not being Jonny Wilkinson. But it was Grayson who made Ben Cohen's rightly disallowed try through his chip ahead. And he seemed reasonably comfortable throughout.

Iain Balshaw, by contrast, had a wretched time of it. This may not entirely have been Balshaw's fault. Clive Woodward, the England coach, is a great devotee of the concept of the back three. In fact, he has widened the concept and made it the back four. This is all very well, but I cannot accept that all wings should be able to play full-back, and vice versa. If Balshaw was being given a hard time by Ronan O'Gara, as he was, the best course was surely to effect a swap between him and Josh Lewsey.

At Cardiff, Wales showed a similar reluctance to face their own limitations. They did reasonably well in the line-out, but their scrum looked increasingly uncomfortable. This was not altogether surprising, because Sylvain Marconnet, Peter de Villiers (missing from the World Cup) and Jean-Jacques Crenca are probably the three best props in the championship.

Yet what did Wales do when, in the second half, they were awarded a penalty yards from the French line? They did not take the three points, which, with 15 minutes to go, would have been a perfectly sensible choice. They did not try a tap penalty, which would at least have guaranteed possession. They did not risk a line-out, which, with Michael Owen in fine form, might have come to something. Instead Colin Charvis, the captain, elected to have a scrum.

It was not even a normal scrum. Jonathan Thomas was taken off the blind side, put in the centre and replaced by Gareth Thomas, the full-back. Predictably, Gareth Thomas was as much out of place as a wicketkeeper at cover point and France duly escaped.

What is clear from the Six Nations so far is that the composition of the Lions party is not what might have been expected at the beginning of the season. Then, for example, it would have been assumed that, even in the absence of Martin Johnson, there would be three or possibly even four England locks on the trip. On present form, however, the locks would be the two Irishmen on duty on Saturday, together with another Irishman, Donncha O'Callaghan, and Owen of Wales. A month ago, Gordon D'Arcy was nowhere, but today he is a certainty.

I wonder how Woodward, the Lions manager, used to dealing with England players, will acclimatise himself to these and other changes.

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