Scotland's cleverly thought-out Calcutta Cup victory at Murrayfield has provoked a frenzied reaction in England, with Jonny Wilkinson being dropped from the starting line-up for the first time in almost a decade and Brian Ashton coming under a degree of pressure he could not have expected after guiding the team to a World Cup final as recently as last October. Professional rugby is an unforgiving business, and when the tide turns against a coach problems seem to multiply by the day. I know. I've been there.
Can England turn things around? Of course they can. A good victory over Ireland this afternoon will put a different perspective on things. But Eddie O'Sullivan, Ashton's opposite number, travels to Twickenham in a similarly fraught position, and it is essential that Brian sends out the right messages to his players. If he lets on, through his body language, that the pressure is getting to him, that negativity will feed into the team and inhibit them. A coach has to stand strong in these circumstances. Weakness is fatal.
A lot of what Brian is experiencing goes with the territory: I well remember my last game in charge of the England team, against a Springbok side coached by Jake White. Jake and I were experiencing the same kind of heat, much in the way Brian and Eddie share some problems now.
South Africa came from behind to win that game in the autumn of 2006 and, as a consequence, Jake survived (and went on to win the World Cup) while I found myself out of a job. I'm not saying there is a direct comparison here but, make no mistake, this is an important game for everyone involved.
I guess one of Brian's issues is the way he has talked about this England side. If you're going to make big statements about how you're going to play, you have to deliver – or, at least, be seen to go close to delivering. When a coach says "we'll do this" and "we'll do that" and it doesn't happen, he's likely to find himself on the rough end of public opinion.
International rugby is about winning. England understood it well enough in the World Cup, and reached the final. They understood it in France three weeks ago, where they emerged victorious by playing to their strengths. I just hope they understand it again this afternoon.
Mind you, something has been missed in the course of the Murrayfield post-mortem: the virtues of the Scottish performance. They deserve a good deal of credit for their tactical approach, which, given the atrocious conditions, was absolutely spot on. They missed only two tackles and the vast majority of the tackles they made were of a very high quality. The defensive effort stopped England generating the momentum they required, and when you add in the discipline factor the outcome was not so surprising.
The English forwards have been living on the edge of the lawbook all campaign, slipping in the sides of rucks and mauls and chancing their arms at the tackle area. They're good at it and, generally, they escape punishment. Last weekend, they ran into a referee who was having none of it. Had the Scots not given Wilkinson a couple of penalty chances of his own in the space of four minutes midway through the third quarter, they might easily have pushed on to a more comprehensive victory.
Wilkinson less of a worry to opponents
So, Jonny has finally been demoted to the bench. Nobody with eyes to see could claim he played a perfect game last Saturday. He had to take his share of the stick flying around and I agree with Brian that a player's reputation should never be allowed to affect a selection decision. Equally, it was not all Wilkinson's fault. I've heard and read a fair bit of nonsense on this topic, so let's try to get to the truth of it.
We have to start from the basis that, while he still does certain things as well as anyone in the game, he has also lost something that made him the player he was. Jonny no longer poses a threat as an attacking runner. Even when he was in his pomp, he did not possess real pace. He did, however, have the footwork to attack the line and ask serious questions of a defence. Why has this part of his armoury disappeared? It could be a direct result of all that injury trauma he suffered; it could be a psychological thing, because there is too much pressure on him alone to find a way to give England victory. All I know is that opponents no longer spend time worrying about him carving them up with ball in hand.
It is also true that he does not have the eyes-and-ears support of experienced players like Will Greenwood, Mike Catt and Matt Dawson. When Jonny was playing his best rugby at international level, between 2000 and 2003, these people played a crucial part in directing England's game.
There is nothing sinister in this: because the sport has developed in the way it has, the very best outside-halves depend on those around them to engage fully in the decision-making. Without the communication skills of an Aaron Mauger or a Luke McAlister, without their ability to make the right calls, even the brilliant All Black stand-off Daniel Carter wouldn't have the time to execute his plays.
But Wilkinson is still a performer for the big stage. Against France in Paris, he exerted a measure of control beyond the capacity of most of his peers and kicked a couple of monumental, game-breaking penalties. He also played a significant role in shutting out a dangerous French back division, who failed to score for only the time in the championship to date. Against Wales in the opening game, when England showed the best of themselves for 40 minutes, he was terrific; of the five tries scored by the team so far, he created two. (A couple of others came from chargedowns, the last from a long series of forward drives).
I can't disagree with the decision to give Danny Cipriani a run this time. There is something different about his rugby, something electrifying. At the same time, though, I am sure Jonny will have a huge influence, both on and off the pitch.
Strong case for Welsh defence
All of which leads us on to the big game of the weekend, in Cardiff – a Grand Slam opportunity for Wales, a title-winning opportunity for France. I've had my issues with the approach of Marc Lièvremont, the French coach, to this tournament and I didn't think Wales were in a position to challenge for a second Slam in four years, but these teams have shown themselves to be the best in the championship and it will be some occasion at the Millennium Stadium.
Warren Gatland and Shaun Edwards have added important ingredients to the Welsh mix over the past few weeks. The Red Dragons now have a world-class defence, both in terms of their first-up tackling and their scrambling, and have developed the confidence when under pressure. They don't concede soft tries, and they don't crack mentally. Had they been in possession of these qualities at last year's World Cup, they would have stayed in France a lot longer than they did.
I've often said that matches at this level are decided by inches, and the Welsh story proves it. Paul Sackey was centimetres away from scoring a try that would have finished off Wales at Twickenham before half-time; Shane Horgan was within millimetres of claiming a crucial five points in Dublin last weekend. Had either try been completed, it is unlikely that Gatland and Edwards would be in their current state of grace. They know it, too. They're not daft.
They also know that the French can spoil the party. Lièvremont has experimented to a remarkable degree, but there isn't much of the experimental about his decision to recall Vincent Clerc, Damien Traille, David Skrela, Jean-Baptiste Elissalde, Thierry Dusautoir and Julien Bonnaire. These players have the wow factor and, if their colleagues in the front five stand up to be counted, they are handsomely equipped to do the job. This has all the ingredients to be the match of the tournament and I just wonder whether France will win the championship in the same fashion as last year by scoring a try in the 83rd minute.
It goes without saying that Warren and Shaun have worked wonders with the Welsh team, but know this is a work in progress, that results might have been different. It's why they won't get carried away, whatever happens this afternoon. There will be a hell of a public celebration if they win, though, accompanied by another round of moaning from England supporters who cannot understand for the life of them why Edwards is working on the "wrong" side of the Severn. To which I can only say this: I would have loved the opportunity to work with him in 2006, but it was not to be. Perhaps he could see that being successful for the Rugby Football Union is not always a great career move. Look what happened to the World Cup-winning management team.
Three to watch: End-of-term report
At the start of the Six Nations, I identified the Italy No 8, Sergio Parisse, the England centre, Toby Flood, and the Scotland hooker, Ross Ford, as the three players most likely to catch the eye over the course of the tournament. They have had mixed fortunes.
Parisse has been exceptional, as a player and captain, and shades Ryan Jones of Wales as the best No 8 in the competition. Both have led brilliantly from the front, but the Italian's extra yard of pace and his outstanding offloading give him the decision. His talent has never been in question, but he has tended to drift in and out of games. In this tournament, his contribution has been consistent and inspired. I am massively impressed.
Flood has shown signs that he will develop into an inside centre of the highest calibre. His try-scoring successes against Wales and Italy reminded me of Will Greenwood – his instinct and awareness put him in the optimum position to capitalise on good work by others. I was even happier with his display against France, where he coolly organised the defensive effort and showed courage when the big questions were asked. Unfortunately, he did not make the step up against Scotland when England needed him most. He'll learn.
Ford will be a better player for this experience. As a converted flanker, he is still learning the mechanics of his new position and there were times when that lack of experience was exposed.
However, I felt he started particularly well against Ireland, and also against England last week, and I'm sure he would have played his best game in a Scotland shirt but for the injury problems that have cut him short. Like Flood, he'll be a far better player this time next year.Reuse content