Six Nations 2015: Stuart Lancaster has an embarrassment of riches in the England scrum

Coach must tread a careful line between backing absent stalwarts and those who did such a fine job in Cardiff

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The Independent Online

There is no obvious reason why Shaun Edwards should be looking for another job: it was not the fault of the Wales defence coach that three of his players made an elephant-sized pig’s ear of preventing the England centre Jonathan Joseph scoring a try at the pivotal moment of the Six Nations opener in Cardiff on Friday night. But on the off-chance that he is considering a career switch, he might do well to give public relations a wide berth and steer well clear of Alastair Campbell-style spin doctoring.

Not to put too fine a point on it, Edwards’s eve-of-match oration deep in the bowels of the Millennium Stadium largely consisted of stuff generally associated with... ahem... bowels, aimed entirely at the match referee Jérôme Garcès rather than the immediate audience and delivered with a foghorn-ish lack of subtlety that made the average car insurance advertisement seem subliminal by comparison. Even worse from the Red Dragon perspective, there was a moment when the mask dropped, the heart was laid bare and a whiff of fear filled the room. “England,” he said, “are the envy of the world when it comes to tight forwards.”

That degree of envy is even greater now than it was 72 hours ago – and not just in the lands west of the Severn, either. England’s work at scrum and maul allowed them to dominate the Welsh at close quarters in a way not seen since Martin Johnson, Phil Vickery and the rest were joined together in holy red-rose fraternity more than a decade ago.

The line-out was better than average too, despite the absences of Courtney Lawes, Joe Launchbury, Geoff Parling and Tom Wood. In other words, the foundation stones of success at Test level were laid so firmly they were able to hand 10 gift-wrapped points to their hosts in a horrible opening spell and still win the game.

Without the gnarled know-how of the recently retired Adam Jones – and, perhaps more to the point, without the “big hit” set-piece engagement that died a death 18 months ago and ushered in a new era of proper scrummaging – a Welsh pack crammed with Test Lions suffered serious indignities in the first phase department and spent the second half on the miserable end of a full-force battering.

It is now difficult to see England being unduly troubled in this area until France come to Twickenham in the final round of matches, by which time a Grand Slam might be up for grabs.

 

Friday’s events will not have gone unnoticed in Ireland, where England travel at the mid-point of the tournament, or in those regions of the southern hemisphere – Australia for sure, New Zealand to a lesser but not insignificant degree – where the scrum is considered a necessary evil rather than a thing of beauty.

When Edwards referred to the red-rose front row of Joe Marler, Dylan Hartley and Dan Cole, he could equally have been talking about Alex Corbisiero, Tom Youngs and David Wilson; or, at a push, Mako Vunipola, Rob Webber and Kieran Brookes. When he doffed his cap to Dave Attwood, the new kingpin lock on the block, he did so in the knowledge that Lawes, Launchbury, Parling, George Kruis, Graham Kitchener and Ed Slater also have an eye each on a place in the World Cup squad.

This is where the danger for England now lurks. Embarrassments of riches can easily lead to embarrassing cock-ups in selection, so the head coach Stuart Lancaster must tread a careful line between backing the players who did such an exceptional job in the second half of the game in Cardiff and continuing to invest in those who have what he calls “credit in the bank” – the injured locks, the outside-half Owen Farrell, the centres Brad Barritt, Kyle Eastmond and Manu Tuilagi.

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George Ford (left) makes a pass

 

This is no easy task. Indeed, the way England won, with inventive contributions from George Ford and the outstanding Anthony Watson as well as Joseph, makes it more awkward than might otherwise have been the case. Ford is a very different No 10 to Farrell; Joseph has next to nothing in common with Barritt or Tuilagi or a young up-and-comer like Henry Slade of Exeter.

If, as he has quietly indicated, Lancaster wants England to move more towards the cutting-edge attacking style of Bath, while retaining the base elements of Northampton’s power game, the Ford-Joseph-Watson axis will be an essential ingredient. And that means ignoring Tuilagi when the human bowling ball rolls back into view after injury.

Talking of which, it appeared at the Millennium Stadium that those Englishmen not incapacitated by orthopaedic trauma were exceptionally fit – a whole lot fitter than their opponents, although teams on the receiving end up front generally look leaden-footed by the end of such an evening.

This advantage in conditioning was evident when England won the World Cup in 2003 and if they can pull the same trick this autumn, the odds on them reclaiming the trophy on their own green and pleasant mudheaps will shorten.

Again, this is not a given: all the major European contenders will have the unusual luxury of two-month training camps ahead of the tournament, while the Beautiful South will be toughened by their own Rugby Championship. But one bonus for England and France over the Celtic nations is the quality and brutal competitiveness of their domestic leagues. If Lancaster’s side seemed ruthlessly efficient once they got going in Cardiff, the demanding nature of the Premiership had plenty to do with it.

Latest statistics show the English and French leagues neck and neck when it comes to producing close matches (defined, for these purposes, as those in which the losing side finishes within a try and conversion of the winners). The Top 14 across the Channel stands at 42 per cent; the Premiership at 41 per cent. When it comes to the Pro 12, which brings together teams from Ireland, Scotland and Wales as well as the two professional Italian sides, the percentage is down in the mid-30s.

On Sunday, the England coach was deep in “one game at a time” mode, and you could see his point: Lancaster would rather eat his own kneecaps than allow pride to go before a fall. But he now has a priceless opportunity to secure a first Six Nations title for himself and a first red-rose Slam since that year of years in 2003.

The Twickenham matches could hardly be more to his liking: Italy have never beaten the men in white; the Scots have not won a Calcutta Cup match in London since the time of Margaret Thatcher; the French know what it is like to prevail there, but still hate the place like poison.

Which leaves the testing little trip across the Irish Sea to meet the reigning champions at the start of next month. Ireland are no mugs. Like England, they beat the Wallabies in the autumn; unlike England, they also did for the Springboks – and they have the tactical nous to dream up ways of turning all that red-rose size and muscle against itself. But even when they were losing in November, there was something about the England set-piece that seemed indomitable. Assuming they pick the right players, they will take some beating.

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