England’s coaches may have the luxury of looking at the bigger picture as they close in on a first Grand Slam in a decade, but Geoff Parling is not seeing beyond the next line-out.
One of the senior figures in the red-rose dressing room, the Leicester lock will spend the next 24 hours reminding everyone within earshot that next week’s big game with Wales in Cardiff will be a whole lot smaller if Italy are taken too lightly at Twickenham on Sunday.
“We mustn’t get ahead of ourselves – not for one minute,” said the Teesider yesterday on being asked whether the players, like Stuart Lancaster and his fellow back-roomers, were approaching the remaining Six Nations fixtures as a two-game project. “If the coaches see it that way, it’s because there’s a six-day turnaround between Italy and Wales and they need to plan accordingly. From our point of view, if we go into Italy thinking about Wales, there’ll be problems.
“Leicester played Treviso in this season’s Heineken Cup and when we went over there, we only just scraped a win. We know what we’re facing in this match. They’re coming to Twickenham with nothing to lose. They’ll be physical and they’ll get stuck in up front – they’re good at spoiling opposition ball and making life difficult. I see this as a test for us.”
Thanks in no small part to Parling, who has brought a certain rigour to the England pack since breaking into the starting line-up midway through last year’s tournament, such tests are being passed with pleasing regularity. But the line-out, his prime area of responsibility, has missed a beat or two of late and he is not best pleased with the drop in standards.
“Against Ireland we lost three line-outs, and another two against the French,” he acknowledged. “It’s down to detail, and while I’m not a 4.30am man when it comes to analysing these things [as the former England captain Steve Borthwick was said to be], I do spend a lot of time worrying about it. But I’m not too concerned. We’ve won our last couple of games through character, which is what you need when your backs are against the wall. You can fix up little bits of detail, but you can’t fix character if you don’t have it.”
Ireland have confirmed that Paddy Jackson, the inexperienced Ulster outside-half, is ready to face France in Dublin tomorrow and will start the game as their principal goal-kicker. Jackson, whose international debut against Scotland 12 days ago was something of a mixed bag, picked up a hamstring injury during training at the start of the week but passed a fitness test yesterday.
His direct opponent will be the ever-unfathomable Frédéric Michalak, recalled to the French starting line-up after being dropped for the trip to Twickenham in the last round of matches. Michalak replaces François Trinh-Duc in the pivot role, and there are also places for Maxime Médard on the left wing and Florian Fritz at centre. Médard, as exhilarating an attacking runner as there is in Europe, replaces Benjamin Fall, while Fritz gets the nod over the outsized Mathieu Bastareaud.
“We need to find an 80-minute performance,” said Philippe Saint-André, the Tricolore coach who has seen his side lose all three games to date. “The role of the France team may be to win and win in style, but right now, in our situation, if we could sign up for a 3-0 victory we would do it straight away. We need lots of appetite, lots of energy. We need to raise our heads and force our destiny.”