Six Nations 2013: Five areas that England must address to win Grand Slam in Cardiff
It could be heartache for red rose brigade unless they sort key issues
1 Managing the body count
Owen Farrell has recovered from the thigh strain that cost him his place against Italy – he put himself through a long kicking session yesterday and emerged in one piece, much to the relief of the coaching staff – so his return at No 10 is pretty much guaranteed. What the England hierarchy do not know is how many of their injured locks, if any, will be in optimum condition for the extreme test awaiting them in Cardiff.
Geoff Parling, Joe Launchbury and Courtney Lawes are all struggling, with shoulder, elbow and arm problems respectively. Parling, substituted after 45 minutes against Italy, is still under assessment while Launchbury, his fellow first-choicer, will miss today's training – the one serious run-out before the big day. While Stuart Lancaster, the head coach, said there were grounds for optimism in each case, he also acknowledged that a concentration of orthopaedic trauma in one position was far from ideal.
England must generate plenty of heat in the boilerhouse against the Welsh pairing of Ian Evans, an effective stoker of the fires, and Alun Wyn Jones, who raised the temperature significantly on his return to the side in Scotland. If the visitors go cold in this department, they will lose.
2 Ending the try famine
When it comes to crossing the whitewash, England have outscored only two teams this season: an underbaked Fiji in November and an unusually conciliatory Scotland in February. As the ubiquitous Sir Clive Woodward said somewhere, to someone, on some media platform last weekend, they cannot expect to keep winning through character and penalties alone, for there will come a point when they meet opponents sufficiently disciplined to deny them shots at goal. Or, just as likely, run into a referee who refuses to award them penalties in kickable range. It is worth mentioning that Steve Walsh – a New Zealander who now considers himself Australian, and a red-rose bête noir whichever way you cut it – will be in charge of matters at the Millennium Stadium.
The back three combination is not working terribly well. Alex Goode has attacking ideas coming out of his ears but is no one's idea of a strike runner, while Chris Ashton is a strike runner bereft of ideas. Meanwhile, Mike Brown's impersonation of a Test-class wing grows less convincing each time England leave an empty space in the "tries scored" column. For this game, however, realistic alternatives are thin on the ground.
3 Closing the creativity gap
Messrs Goode, Ashton and Brown could, if they so wished, lay some of the blame at the feet of the first-choice midfield trio, all of whom are extremely valuable in parts, like a golden curate's egg. Farrell's fire-and-ice temperament – the God-given gift that makes him that rarest of rugby creatures: the genuine "Test match animal" – is of enormous benefit to England, but the X-factor No 10 in the squad is Freddie Burns. Brad Barritt? One of the world's great defenders, but blessed with few powers of invention. Manu Tuilagi? Still something of a one-trick pony, even though the trick is unusually good.
Lancaster missed a chance to incorporate the attacking potency of Billy Twelvetrees – not to mention the Gloucester centre's kicking – when he paired Barritt and Tuilagi against France. Somewhere along the line, he will have to readdress the issue: if he does not, Twelvetrees could join the likes of Mathew Tait as a lost talent.
Wales will be strong in this area, even though Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies have yet to revisit the heights of last year's Grand Slam ascent. Tuilagi may yet make one or both of them look daft, but on balance, the home side have the edge.
4 Solving the back-row conundrum
Ryan Jones, that hard-bitten veteran of thousands of ruck-and-maul conflicts, did not look best pleased when his game against Scotland was cut short by injury, so it may well be that Wales will run two dyed-in-the-wool open-side scavengers, Sam Warburton and Justin Tipuric, this weekend. As England have no out-and-out scavenger – captain Chris Robshaw generates more than his fair share of turnover ball, but is not a natural groundhog – this could cause all manner of grief.
The brain-teasers do not end there. Ben Morgan, currently the most dynamic of England's ball-carrying loose forwards, is still unfit, so Tom Wood will have to continue at No 8 – hardly the ideal position for a man who operates best from the side of the scrum rather than its base. Lancaster must decide whether to stick with James Haskell and his overt physicality or promote Tom Croft from the bench, a move that would bolster the line-out and make the visitors significantly more dangerous in open field.
At his best, Croft plays like a modern-day Ian Kirkpatrick, that All Black titan of the 1970s. But Kirkpatrick rarely played in a back row that was skinned alive on the floor.
5 Understanding the history
The good news, from England's perspective? Margaret Thatcher is no more, politically speaking. Whoever leads Wales this weekend will not spend the half-hour before kick-off ranting about the closing of the coalmines. The bad news? The Welsh never forget an insult. If red-rose games in Ireland are weighed down by a history that has nothing to do with chasing a ball around, matches across the Severn also come with a "them and us" dimension. It's a class thing, basically.
Lancaster said yesterday that all this extraneous matter would be nothing more than a "reference point", adding: "It's not in my nature to hide away from the fact that this is a title match, a Grand Slam match, but equally, it's not in my coaching philosophy to talk up the historical stuff."
Even so, the wider context of Anglo-Welsh relations can easily mess with players' minds. England have never previously travelled to Cardiff in search of a Slam – their two previous clean-sweep games against Wales were the successful one at Twickenham in 1992 and the mess-up at Wembley in 1999 – but many fine red-rose teams have come unstuck on the banks of the Taff, to the sound of hymns and arias.
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