Brian Ashton: The game will be won or lost on decision-making
Tackling The Issues
The country is full of rugby supporters who think they know how the changes to the England team for this afternoon's fascinating Six Nations meeting with Wales at Twickenham will affect the contest, but the truth of the matter is that no one knows anything ahead of kick-off.
What we can say for certain is that Stuart Lancaster, now near the mid-point of the tournament after two games as an international coach, understands the urgent need for a change in attacking mindset that will allow his side to throw down a challenge to the in-form visitors. Indeed, he has stated as much in public.
Wales may have lost a couple of hookers to injury and a lock to suspension, but they travel in considerable strength. They must be delighted to be in a position to name George North on the wing and Sam Warburton at open-side flanker; equally, they will be happy to see the experienced Lions second-row forward Alun Wyn Jones back in the starting line-up.
Before we discuss the prospects for today's game, it is worth touching on a subject with a little more certainty attached to it: namely, the scramble for the full-time England head coach-manager role. We know now that three strong candidates – Conor O'Shea, the Harlequins director of rugby; Jim Mallinder, his counterpart at Northampton; and Wayne Smith, the former All Black coach – have, for various reasons, ruled themselves out of the running. This has left the field open for Stuart, who has definitely applied, and a limited field of rivals, generally thought to include Nick Mallett and John Kirwan.
Predictably, there has been a barrage of comment on Stuart's progress to date: some of it myopic, some of it judgemental, much of it the product of short-term assessment that fails to take into account a range of relevant factors. Stuart has been bold in his response to the narrow win in Italy a fortnight ago; indeed, he could not have been more honest in admitting to the failures of England's attacking game in Rome and expressing his desire to up the ante against Wales. We have to remember that were he a new Premiership coach operating with a new squad, today's match would be his third and last warm-up fixture ahead of the serious business of a league campaign. When we look at it this way, we have a clearer and saner sense of where England are.
Key to the mindset governing any shift in attacking approach are the selections in the half-back and centre positions, and with Toby Flood and Manu Tuilagi, two World Cup midfielders, back in the mix after injury, Stuart effectively had seven candidates for four places. His job was – and will remain for the rest of the tournament – to choose those most suited to shaping the game England are trying to develop. To my mind, the axis between the half-backs and the inside centre is critical and while it is self-evident that those players' skill levels will have to stand up to the most intense scrutiny today, I'm more interested in other areas: in particular game management, with its emphasis on effective communication and decision-making. It seems to me that at this level of rugby, these qualities are the most critical weapons in the armoury.
Now England have lost some playmaking subtlety as a result of Charlie Hodgson's withdrawal through injury, will they employ inventive options to challenge the defensive organisation of Wales, or bank on the more traditional, ultra-direct approach? A mix of the two would make life interesting but that rather depends on Brad Barritt showing there is more to his game at inside centre than the wholly admirable hard-running, heavy-hitting qualities he has displayed so far.
Whatever the thinking behind the selection for this game, coaches and players throughout English union would do well to beg, borrow or steal the television footage of last weekend's rugby league match between Huddersfield and Warrington. Regular readers will be aware of my love for the "other" code and also know that I am ever willing to learn from other sports. What I saw from the comfort of my armchair was a master-class from Lee Briers, the Warrington stand-off. Far more than most players in any form of rugby, he understands how to use the space around him, and with his technical attributes – running and passing, along with highly-developed kicking skills, both short and long – he creates havoc when he is on the ball.
Back to this afternoon. Can England, without the likes of Briers in their set-up, win the battle of intelligence on the gainline when they are in possession? I wrote last week of the effectiveness of the Welsh pincer movement in the area between the first receiver and the outside centre channel and with this in mind, it is crucial that England produce a smart kicking game. Wales will hurt them with counter-attacks off anything loose or long. England must also hit them with return plays from centre-field attacking areas and send late runners down the short sides to make the Welsh defenders stop and think, thereby preventing them building a solid wall across the field.
While the task is simple when described in these terms, in reality we will need to see some quick-thinking rugby (not, if I'm honest, in evidence during the tournament to date) if it is to be successfully executed. England's aim should be to make Wales reassess their defensive system on the hoof. I've never come across a team who relish making major adjustments during a game.
During their spells without the ball, the England defenders must work hard to close down space while paying detailed attention to Welsh width. Reading the game, attacking hard on the opposition side of the gainline, effective communication, keeping a tight shape and maximising performance in the one-on-one tackle area ... all these things will be vital, with the last perhaps being the most important. Any weakness in the individual confrontations will, I suspect, be exploited by the visitors.
It is an intriguing match-up, but given the two teams' previous performances in this championship, my head tells me that Wales are the more likely victors. But never forget the unpredictability factor. This, above all, is what makes this tournament such a spectacle.
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