The first round of Six Nations matches saw three sides perform with a clear idea of what they were trying to achieve, and they all produced some striking rugby. England were not among them. Wales, Ireland and France have done their homework and reached some firm conclusions on exactly how they want to play, although the French are still searching for the balance in selection that will enable them to bring things to fruition. England are still trying to open the book.
It's difficult to see them winning in Cardiff this evening: if I had to place a bet on the outcome, I'd go Wales by something in the region of 10 points. Against Italy last weekend, a pretty dire game, I was seriously taken aback by certain aspects of the English approach. Most alarmingly, they put so little of what I like to call "motion" on the ball. They sought contact obsessively, and on finding it, they did nothing to wrong-foot the opposition. Instead of forcing the Italian defence to make some decisions, they made their decisions for them.
Too often, they sent one runner up on his own, rather than the two or three you need at international level. This explains why someone like Steve Borthwick, a 115kg (18st) second-row forward with a good technique, found himself in danger of being double-tackled and smashed backwards every time he carried the ball round the corner of a ruck. It also explains why so much of England's breakdown ball was so terribly slow in delivery.
Add this to the reluctance of the England backs to cut some angles or make dummy runs with a view to disrupting the defensive line in midfield, and you have a strategy that stretches credulity. Until the penny drops that the close-quarter, bullying approach of old no longer wins games in the way it once did, they will continue to struggle. These days, successful sides move opponents around by using the ball.
I'm not suggesting England should attempt to play pretty rugby in Cardiff. If the game gets pretty, Wales will win hands down: they are far superior in terms of continuity and appreciation of space. England should play ugly, and the uglier the better. But ugly doesn't have to mean one-dimensional or predictable. It means forcing an advantage at first phase – particularly in the line-out, which is not the strongest part of the Welsh act – and then winning the contact by getting the right numbers in the right places and actually doing something with the ball. I'd like to see them get on the front foot in the tight, attack the 10-12 channel, send forwards round the corner in groups, make the correct decisions at half-back and kick for position. If they do that, Wales won't like it very much.
Even then, England might end up empty-handed. The big difference between this Wales team and the one that failed at the last World Cup is fitness: the moment Warren Gatland took over as head coach, he put conditioning at the top of his agenda and made it his business to improve the work rate of a group of players who had all the talent necessary to succeed but too little of the application. They now have complete confidence in their ability to play the full 80 minutes at a very high tempo, and that makes them extremely difficult to subdue.
This afternoon's game in Paris might be closer than people expect: I don't think it's beyond Scotland to win narrowly, especially if they work out a way of scrummaging effectively in the absence of their best tight forwards, Euan Murray and Nathan Hines.
I'm also intrigued by tomorrow's match between Italy and Ireland in Rome, where I expect the home side to produce a performance dramatically better than last week's effort at Twickenham. The Irish are putting a nice game together under Declan Kidney, Gert Smal and my countryman Alan Gaffney, whom I consider to be one of the best back-line coaches in the world. But I'm not sure they'll run away with it at Stadio Flaminio, despite Brian O'Driscoll's surge of attacking form. A seven-point victory for the visitors sounds about right.
Eddie Jones is Saracens director of rugby and you can see his side in Guinness Premiership action against Sale at Vicarage Road on Sunday 1 March, kick-off 3pm.Reuse content