David Flatman on Six Nations 2014: How Stuart Lancaster's men can apply the kiss-off
From the Front Row
Sunday 09 March 2014
In sport, as in every walk of life, there are myriad little sayings and proverbs that seem to fit perfectly one's circumstance. The fact that, for 18 years, I wrongly believed I was a Sagittarius yet still found even the girly mags' foresight to be eerily insightful likely says it all. So, as a player, I didn't much go in for the motivational quotes that inevitably found themselves painted onto the gym wall.
All except one: "Keep It Simple, Stupid", or KISS, stuck with me like little else anyone ever offered by way of advice. I think this worked for me partly because it gave me a good explanation for being less than flamboyant in my playing style, but mainly because it just makes sense. The best teams are those that concentrate efforts on doing very simple things very well, repeatedly.
This is not a terribly romantic dissection of greatness, but I believe it to be true. The romance comes from individuals who, as well as displaying remarkable efficiency at key times, have the talent to rise above the norm, and transition seamlessly from the basic to the magical.
To perform the fundamentals – the scrum, the line-out, defensive organisation, offensive cohesion, restarts, kicking game – to a world-class level requires real character. The concentration and willingness to repeat drills until they become habit does not come easily. Ergo to smash habits into one's body and mind takes an unusual level of drive.
At Test level we must assume that every man has this character, so the tiny margins between sides suddenly become all-important, and these margins can only be exploited through sheer talent and proper thought.
Despite an incredible level of success, Warren Gatland's sides have never done anything too complicated. In fact, in terms of midfield momentum and round-the-corner running, the plan followed by this Wales team is little different from that of Wasps a generation ago. It is simple, but that is no insult, because they do it incredibly well. Add to this recipe a few spoonfuls of magic from Shane Williams, Leigh Halfpenny, James Hook and Jamie Roberts and you have quite a set-up.
Stuart Lancaster and his coaches will have watched Wales play until their eyes bled, and will know their gameplay inside out. Stopping it is a different matter. England's 10/12/13 axis will have to find a way to control Jamie Roberts (and account for his expert decoy running), as the often sensational lines through which he chooses to hurl his enormous frame have undone the very best defences in the world.
And with his penetration comes momentum, as Welsh forwards pile around the corner and lunge into naturally retreating English defenders. From there, weapons like George North and Alex Cuthbert are merciless.
England's back row will be coiled, ready to assist their midfield in this battle but, ultimately, that front line will either do its job or it won't, and that comes down to preparation. The resolve is inside this English team – we have all seen that; this is about planning and execution.
The Welsh front five is from a different realm in terms of experience. They have been there and done it against nastier mobs than this England pack. But have they faced many groups of men so motivated to fight for one another? Seriously, I doubt it. But being staunch is not enough. Joe Marler will have to deal with Adam Jones' slip-inducing height at scrum time, and Davey Wilson will have to pin his right shoulder down hard if he wants to stop Gethin Jenkins lifting it and driving him back over his locks.
Everywhere you look there is a huge amount to think about. England have their work cut out but the big question is whether or not they can give the Welsh enough to think about in attack. If Owen Farrell and Billy Twelvetrees can combine to unleash the still-caged Luther Burrell and Jack Nowell, then England can win. Lancaster's men have courage in abundance, but so do Gatland's.
So when it's going off this afternoon and the sweat and blood is flying, it will come down to thought. Lancaster thinks as normal men sleep, so I believe England will triumph, perhaps against the odds.
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