Six Nations: Andy Farrell makes case for defence as England vow not to be caught cold

Backs coach lends his support to Chris Ashton and Courtney Lawes but is thinking ahead to Wales game

Italy's strike-rate in Six Nations matches at Twickenham is not exactly off the scale – seven tries in six games, a figure that does not sit comfortably alongside the 36 conceded – so there are good reasons to expect England's barricades to hold firm on Sunday. Yet Andy Farrell, the man charged with maintaining the highest possible level of red-rose security, still spent much of the day mounting a stern defence of his team's defence.

Wesley Fofana's long-range try for France 11 days ago did not amuse the backs coach one little bit, resulting as it did from a series of fluffed tackles, but the most widely criticised of those who repeatedly missed their hits as the game unfolded, the wing Chris Ashton and the back-rower Courtney Lawes, had Farrell's full support.

"There were a few things with Chris in the Fofana incident: timing, technique, positioning in the backfield…basically he left himself with too much to do," Farrell acknowledged. "But the encouraging thing about the people in our squad is that they take responsibility for themselves. There's a lot of self-policing going on.

"Chris is always grabbing the coaches and pulling us to one side, asking to do extra work on various aspects of his game. Like the rest, he's willing to run the extra dummy line – to take on one more 100m chase – for the greater good. I've played in teams where people worked hard in order to make themselves look good. That's not the way of it here.

"As for Courtney, we wanted to see him getting off the defensive line fast and putting the fear of whatever into someone even if he didn't quite complete the tackle, because the next time that someone finds himself taking the ball up, he's not going to be thinking pretty thoughts. He's going to be thinking: 'S***, where's Courtney Lawes?'"

Both Ashton and Lawes will feel a little uncomfortable today, ahead of training sessions that will influence the shape of the combination that starts against the Azzurri on Sunday. Lawes, sent back to Northampton for a Premiership run-out last weekend, is not expected to hold his place in the back row, while Ashton, retained in camp by the head coach Stuart Lancaster, is under pressure from a number of rivals.

If he survives the cut, it will be because Lancaster thinks he might recover some lost confidence against opponents who have struggled to handle him in the past – most notably two years ago, when he scored four of England's eight tries in a 59-13 canter.

Farrell confessed that he and his fellow back-roomers had spent at least some time thinking about next week's tournament finale against Wales in Cardiff – a game that will, barring a very strange turn of events in four days' time, give England a shot at a first Grand Slam since the World Cup-winning year of years a decade ago.

"We'd be fools if we tried to tell you we haven't looked at both these closing matches, because at this stage of the competition it's about a 12-day strategy," he said. "But we have to get our preparations for Italy absolutely right: they've never beaten England, so this will be their grand final. If they could win without Sergio Parisse [their suspended captain, widely regarded as the world's finest No 8] they'd be absolute heroes, wouldn't they?"

If there is some patching up to be done in the defensive sphere, England's tight forwards are also in restoration mode after a tough day at scrum and line-out against the French. "We haven't put together a complete game," admitted the Leicester prop Dan Cole. "The back five of the scrum delivered a performance at the set-piece in the last match, but we had issues in the front row.

"Against Ireland a couple of weeks previously, it was the other way round. We need to be mentally alert. We want to go through 80 minutes with everyone doing what needs to be done."

Cole was comfortable enough with the England scrum being penalised for early engagements at the start of the game against Les Bleus – "You don't want to be stuffed by the opposition, so you're always edging," he explained – but he was harder on himself in respect of the yellow card he received for holding back the scrum-half Maxime Machenaud at the last knockings.

"It was daft," he acknowledged. "You can make excuses for these things but they shouldn't be happening. It gained us nothing. It was a brain-freeze."

Ireland, who face France in Dublin on Saturday, have lost the Ulster wing Craig Gilroy to injury and replaced him with Fergus McFadden of Leinster. They have yet to make a call in the outside-half position because Paddy Jackson, another Ulsterman, is struggling with a hamstring injury. Up front, the prop Cian Healy and the lock Mike McCarthy return to the tight five.

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