Brian Smith: Wallabies are watching Six Nations closely, hungry for Lions clues

Coach's View: England, growing in confidence by the game, are huge favourites

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Leaving England aside – and I believe we can legitimately do so on this occasion, because they should walk it against Italy at Twickenham on Sunday – everyone is looking at everyone else as the Six Nations reaches its penultimate stage. Wales have a deep-rooted belief in their ability to rain on the English parade in Cardiff next weekend, but to feel really confident about their chances they need to find a way past Scotland this afternoon. As for Ireland and France, we're talking about two teams in a difficult place, weighed down by serious amounts of pressure.

We should be in no doubt as to the level of French angst after losing three on the spin: Thierry Dusautoir, their outstanding captain, told us all we needed to know when, earlier this week, he spoke of the "whatever it takes" mood among his players. But the Irish are also struggling, having gone down to England on home soil and then snatched defeat from the jaws of victory at Murrayfield. I know from speaking to their defence coach, Les Kiss, my friend and fellow Aussie, that the whole back-room staff are feeling the heat generated by the magnifying glass.

I understand how those blokes are suffering. Scotland had no right to win that game in Edinburgh in the last round: 99 times out of a hundred, they would have finished second. It reminded me a little of England's defeat by the Wallabies in Perth back in 2010: clearly superior in many departments for much of the game, we invented new ways of failing to make it count. Every now and again, rugby makes a real mug of you.

Having said all that, what interests me most about this weekend is how the current Wallabies coach, Robbie Deans, is looking at things on this side of the Equator. With the big series against the British and Irish Lions only three months away, he will be deep in planning mode, attempting to second-guess his opposite number, Warren Gatland. Not just in terms of selection, but in terms of tactics and strategy too.

On the selection front, I think we've seen one obvious bolter for a Lions Test place: the Scotland full-back Stuart Hogg. He looked like the find of the Six Nations from the moment he opened up England on the first day of the tournament and, as events have unfolded, he's been a sensation. I'll be very surprised indeed if he fails to get a shot against an Australian team boasting one or two spectacular broken-field runners of their own.

Tactically, things are a little more complex. I believe Deans will be concentrating on two weapons in the Lions armoury at the moment: set piece and defence. Graham Rowntree, the England forwards coach, will be in charge of preparing the Lions scrum, while Andy Farrell will be the defence specialist. Deans had a close-up look at both when the Wallabies played at Twickenham in November, and will know a lot more about their thinking by the end of this competition.

He must ask himself whether he has the prop forwards to stand up to one of Rowntree's set pieces, for he will know in his heart of hearts that the Lions front row will be stronger than the current England one. I'm guessing that as long as his best scrummagers, Benn Robinson and Ben Alexander, stay fit, Deans will look for something approaching parity in this department. (While we're on the subject of grunt-and-groan rugby, he will also be more confident of handling the Lions' driving play, now that the South African coach Jake White has upped performance levels in this area through his Super 15 work with the Canberra-based Brumbies).

Defensively speaking, Deans has already struck a couple of solid blows. Back in the autumn, he out-thought England by using a short kicking game against the Farrell system of mass suffocation, which, a little like Shaun Edwards' trademark operation across the border in Wales, depends heavily on fast line-speed and mega-physicality. By picking players who could put the ball behind their opponents and force them to contest the breakdown on the back foot, Deans struck gold.

More pertinently still, the 2012 Wallabies also outwitted the Welsh – and, by extension, Gatland, who had rejoined the national team for the second half of the autumn series. Try as he might, Warren can't buy himself a win over Australia, and it must be getting to him by now. It's not at all certain that the Lions will be red-hot favourites for a series victory by the time we reach the first Test in Brisbane.

This much is certain, though: England, growing in confidence by the game, are massive favourites. It's difficult to see how Italy can win. England are not running rings round opponents: their attacking game has been missing a beat just recently. But the security of their set-piece operation and their huge commitment in defence is such that they can afford to let some opportunities slip by, and against Italy, in particular, missed chances tend not to be fatal. The Azzurri are developing an attacking game of their own – they are nowhere near as one-dimensional as they were two or three seasons ago – but Farrell's operation will be too much for them at Twickenham. They simply do not have the artillery to blow enough holes in it.

Brian Smith is rugby director at London Irish and former England attack coach. His fee for this article has been donated to Great Ormond Street Hospital