Lewis Moody: England have gone from underdogs to top cats but young team still needs time
Their Six Nations fate will depend on whether they absorb the new pressure in a positive manner
Tuesday 29 January 2013
There is much to admire about Stuart Lancaster's England as they head into the Six Nations – and once they have another couple of seasons together as a unit we will see some potentially great rugby coming from them, akin to that of early 2000 under Clive Woodward.
But that is still a couple of seasons away, and for all the shift in dynamic for England off the back of that unforgettable win over the All Blacks, we must remember that this is still a very young team. Lancaster's aim is to keep this group together in the build-up to 2015, by when they will have a great deal of experience. But at the moment, it is still a learning curve for them.
Last year England were underdogs. All of a sudden they are many people's favourites and that brings an entirely different set of pressures. This team certainly can win the Six Nations if they come through their second game, a pivotal fixture in Ireland. Win that and the opportunity to claim the championship will be there. Winning all three of the games against Ireland, France and Wales may prove out of reach, but the title shouldn't be.
So, with the extra pressure now after the exploits of the autumn, England's fate will be determined by whether the coaches and players absorb it in a positive manner. That's something you have to learn, being favourites. They have got plenty of experience in the coaching set-up via Andy Farrell, Graham Rowntree and Mike Catt, men who have handled that sort of pressure during their playing days. Ultimately this is how a team learns: how do you deal with pressure?
There are a couple of areas England need to address. They need another wing to add to Chris Ashton. Mike Brown did a good job towards the end of the autumn but he is not a natural winger and Kyle Eastmond may yet prove the long-term answer. Centre is the other worry, especially in Manu Tuilagi's absence. Brad Barritt had a great autumn campaign but I don't see him being the complete answer. He is reliable and will defend until he has nothing left, but the future is more suited to Jonathan Joseph or, longer term, Billy Twelvetrees or Henry Trinder from Gloucester.
Overall, though, Lancaster is facing the headache any coach wants, which is having a number of players to choose from for most positions.
On Saturday, I would like to think England can put 15 points on Scotland, maybe more. The Scots will not roll over and England must guard against over-confidence but it should be a convincing win, especially with the changes these visitors are undergoing. I believe it was a mistake not to employ a Scottish coach, to really instil that culture and emotion, which is one thing the Scots can exploit, especially as they have such a small player base to pick from. They have some attacking weapons – Tim Visser has been a try-scoring machine – but England should get this opener out of the way quite easily before they tackle the real task of Ireland.
Scotland's Six Nations goal should be a simple one: beat Italy. That will not be easy as the Italians are ruthless in their pack, set-piece, lineout and ruck – though they still rely too much on a kicking game, much like Argentina. They lack thrust. Scotland's mission should be judged a step in the right direction if they can finish a first campaign under Scott Johnson ahead of them. Italy have a basic game but I would still favour them ahead of Scotland.
Ireland are in an intriguing position, in a period of transition as the old guard are gradually moved aside. Jonny Sexton has finally displaced Ronan O'Gara, while Craig Gilroy is another talented young wing. But there is still enough nous there to assemble a challenge and I see that game in Dublin against England as crucial to both sides.
The Welsh face a hugely difficult tournament. It will be tough for them to turn round their losing streak. The most important defeats were in Australia last summer when they really thought they were in a position to compete. That scarred them mentally, and that's why their form in the autumn was way off par.
Sam Warburton is a vital cog in the Welsh wheel and without him at his best they don't fire as well. It will be an interesting season for Wales – I see them finishing mid-table. Confidence is crucial, and every game they lose or struggle in will be another blow to that confidence. Rob Howley has his work cut out.
Which leaves France, who have proved over the years they are capable of beating anyone, anywhere. The days of them being poor travellers are long gone, likewise the myth about which French side will turn up.
You know they will have a very forceful and physical pack, and will be well drilled by Philippe Saint-André. There will be a lot of continuity play between the forwards and backs, and more importantly they have a very intelligent kicking game. They have experienced players mixed with attacking young talent and gifted backs. For me it is France who are the favourites this year.
Now for a little warm-up challenge in the Yukon
This morning I am off to the Yukon to compete in the Arctic Ultra, a 300-mile race in temperatures that can get as low as -50C. This is just a bit different from anything I've ever done – nothing can really prepare you for such an experience.
The initial aim is to get to the first checkpoint, 100 miles in two and a half days. The aim is to raise £300,000 for HopeHIV – see: mygreatestchallenge.org.
Three to thrill: New boys to watch and enjoy
Tom Youngs; England
Before the autumn Tests I had hooker down as a potential problem position for England. Not any more. That Youngs has gone from playing in the centre to playing international rugby in the front row is amazing: he was outstanding in the autumn, both in the loose and set plays. He'll be right up there.
Eli Walker; Wales
Let's pray that Walker gets some game time. He has the makings of a genuine replacement for Shane Williams. He has been electric for Ospreys when I have seen them recently. Defensively he can get caught out at times, but at 20 he is an exciting prospect.
Tim Visser; Scotland
This may be a curve ball, but Visser has such a good season in prospect. He offers Scotland's first real attacking threat in years, a winger who knows where the line is – if Scotland are to do anything here they need to get as much ball as they can to him.
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