Six Nations 2014: New souped-up Ben Morgan faces Welsh road test at Twickenham
The No 8 has always possessed attacking skills. Now he has been working on his impact tackling
No one in English rugby – or in Welsh rugby, for that matter – ever doubted Ben Morgan's ability as an attacking No 8. What they doubted was his fitness, his weight of tackle… maybe his desire.
According to the West Countryman, who lost his international place to Billy Vunipola before Christmas and has reclaimed it only because his rival suffered an ankle injury in the Six Nations victory over Ireland last weekend, those issues have been addressed. At Twickenham a week on Saturday, that claim will be tested to the limit.
Raised in Gloucestershire but developed as a back-row forward in Red Dragon country – first in Merthyr Tydfil, then professionally by the Llanelli-based Scarlets – he could hardly have chosen a better fixture in which to prove a point: England versus Wales, with both countries chasing the Six Nations title.
"My time with Scarlets was absolutely crucial: they were the ones who picked me up and gave me an opportunity and I'm grateful to them, because without that chance I wouldn't be where I am now," said Morgan. "But I'm English. I have no regrets at all about choosing to play for my own country."
Even despite the disappointments of recent weeks and months – all that time parked on the bench, watching Vunipola on the field? "Yes, I've been on the bench, and rightfully so," he responded. "Let's be honest, Billy has played out of his skin. But with his misfortune comes my good fortune. I can't go out there against Wales on a one-man mission, but it will be good to express my frustration."
It is a popularly held view that Morgan, who recrossed the Severn to join Gloucester in the summer of 2012, was compromised in the first half of the season by the frailties of the Cherry and White forwards in front of him. But while he admits his form "wasn't where I wanted it to be" at that point, he does not attach the slightest blame to a creaking scrum. "I can't use the front row or the front five as a reason for not playing well," he said. "That would be too easy. Regardless of whether things are going right or wrong, you still have to be able to stand out as an individual and do what you can do."
It was an honest response – and an accurate one. Gloucester's set-piece work has indeed bordered on the hopeless this season, but Morgan's perceived deficiencies in conditioning and defence were being discussed by the England coaches during the Test series in South Africa two years ago. Since then, he has worked hard in the gym and even harder in giving his tackling game an aggressive edge.
"I wanted to change because I wasn't happy with the way things were and I didn't want to fade away," he commented. "It's easy to be forgotten in this game." And have the changes been made? "The harder times tend to be the character-building times and I think that period helped me put things right," he said. "It's still the case that the modern No 8 must get over the gain line with some big carries and be on top of his positioning in the back field. But I've also been working on my impact tackling. That's where you can force your opponents on to the back foot and really make a mess of their breakdown."
The Rugby Football Union confirmed that it had launched an investigation into how a ticket for last weekend's England-Ireland match, allocated to the red rose outside-half Owen Farrell, ended up being sold on a website for more than six times its face value. However, the governing body emphasised that Farrell was entirely blameless and would not face a sanction.
Ireland have received a blow with the news that their fly-half, Jonathan Sexton, could miss the rest of the Six Nations with a thumb ligament injury. His club, Racing Metro, said Sexton could be out "from 10 days up to six weeks".
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