Wood growing up as England start to pull up trees
Sunday 06 March 2011
The parallels are too easy to draw. Yes, England have won their first three games in the Six Nations' Championship, and the last time they achieved such a feat was 2003, when a Six Nations Grand Slam was followed by victory in New Zealand and Australia, then by the World Cup triumph.
To place the 2011 class on the same plane as that of eight years ago would be ludicrous, so great is the disparity in experience. England's back row against France last weekend started with an aggregate of 73 caps as compared with Lawrence Dallaglio, Richard Hill and Neil Back, who started the 2003 World Cup with 178.
But the present England class is growing up. "That [17-9 victory over France] was another layer on our belief in where we are going," Mike Ford, the defence coach, said.
Even while England have earned applause for their attacking enthusiasm, the whole is underpinned by the defensive structures that Ford has put in place. Of 122 tackles made against France at Twickenham last Saturday, only six were missed and James Haskell – the player deemed most at risk if Lewis Moody had been fit to play – led the way with 12.
You might expect that of a flanker but Louis Deacon (10) and Dan Cole (9) also rated high in the tackle statistics, not bad for a lock and a prop. At the heart of the effort behind the scrum were Mark Cueto (11) and Mike Tindall (10). The numbers tell of enthusiasm across the pitch to reduce France's offence to a position in which the England tryline was threatened no more than once.
Asked to explain Ford's system, Tindall said: "It's simple: you don't miss tackles. It's not rocket science. We've been using the same system for God knows how long. The work-rate and fitness levels put the boys in the right positions to make tackles and not panic. Fordy does loads of stats and it [France] was one of the best in terms of errors. If you make tackles, they don't score."
Ford recognises the manner in which England have risen to the different challenges of this championship: "Wales away, with the roof shut, was a test and we came through without playing as well as we would have liked," he said. "What we did against Italy [winning 59-13] was something we haven't done for a while and coming through against France suggests our belief is growing."
Ford also leaps to the defence of England's much-maligned centres Tindall and Shontayne Hape. "Shontayne made 24 tackles against Wales and he was our best defender against Italy," the coach said. "Mike led the team brilliantly against France. Other centres may be more eye-catching but when it comes to being solid and winning the Test match, there aren't many better."
But the player who has really grabbed his attention is Tom Wood, the Northampton flanker who won his third cap last week. "I watched Tom playing for his club two weeks before the Wales game and he was, near enough, a replica of Moody," he said. "You can't take your eyes off him, the work he does in attack and defence is unbelievable. I told Martin Johnson that if we had to pick Wood all we should do is give him as little detail as possible, just encourage him to play his natural game. I have learned that you can't give people too much detail,otherwise they go out worrying about x, y and z."
There will not be many bigger midfields in world rugby than those representing England and France (Tindall and Hape against Yannick Jauzion and Aurélien Rougerie). There will, in the southern hemisphere, be cleverer ones – and Ireland on 19 March will pose questions – so further layers must be added. The good thing for England is that Ford and his fellow coaches are well aware of what is to come.
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