Larder admits England fears

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Phil Larder, so influential a figure in the England set-up that he might be described as the power behind the throne, confessed yesterday that his on-field access to the team in the build-up to this weekend's Six Nations match with Ireland at Twickenham will amount to no more than 40 minutes. Given the fragility of the world champions' mood and the selectorial carnage inflicted on the starting formation as a result of the crushing humiliation in Paris, he could have done with 40 days and nights. Irish eyes must be smiling as never before.

While Martin Corry, the captain, was saying all the right things in precisely the right tones of rueful repentance - "Our performance against France was unacceptable," he acknowledged, "and I can assure the England supporters that whatever they are feeling, the players are feeling it ten-fold" - Larder was talking in darker terms about a fundamental breakdown in skill levels that lay at the heart of Sunday's record-equalling 31-6 defeat at the hands of the Tricolores.

As he is responsible for skills improvement as well as defensive strategy, this most truncated of preparation periods - the short turnaround from Sunday to Saturday removes a full day's training from the schedule - leaves Larder between a rock and a hard place, especially as Andy Robinson, Joe Lydon, Dave Alred and Phil Keith-Roach also require coaching access to the players.

"I have 40 minutes to work on our communication, our intensity, on the nullification of the attacking threat posed by the key individuals in the Ireland side - people like Brian O'Driscoll, Shane Horgan, Geordan Murphy," said Larder. "I have to prioritise. I can't say it's ideal, but I cannot devote time to skills work."

Is it not reasonable to expect international-class players to arrive in the England camp with their bread-and-butter basics in good working order, he was asked? "Skills need constant development," he replied.

Larder described England's display at the Stade de France as "probably the worst with which I've been associated" and admitted the players were "very low" in spirit. "This week is more about putting an arm around them than kicking them up the backside," he added. It is Corry, apparently, who will attempt to shame the players into an upturn in delivery. "We have to take responsibility for cocking things up in Paris," the captain said. "We have reached the stage now where we have to perform."

Quite whether the selection for this game, showing eight changes from the line-up that took the field last weekend, will aid performance or hinder it is a moot point. Lydon, the attacking-game specialist who has attracted the lion's share of the criticism aimed at the coaching staff, agreed yesterday that England's forward pack is not awash with footballing ability. While the promotions of Lee Mears at hooker and Simon Shaw at lock will add finesse to a unit feared more for it's functionalism than flair, a good deal of tonnage and aggression has been sacrificed.

"We have people who can dominate the best at set-pieces," said Lydon. "One of the challenges is to make them more attack-oriented with ball in hand." Needless to say, that challenge will not be met this week. There is no time.