Lewis Moody: For an idea of where England are headed, look at Wales now
Moody Views: At 23, Halfpenny is the oldest of the back three, a testimony to the coaching staff's faith in youth
Thursday 16 February 2012
It might have made ominous viewing for any England fan watching Wales cut through Scotland on Sunday – but I looked at it differently. Where Wales happen to be now, I think England will be in a few years' time. So let's just call their magnificent form a snapshot of our own future.
Not that I subscribe to the view that winning the Triple Crown at Twickenham next week will be a formality for Warren Gatland's men. Anything but. I think it will be a tight, close game, which may come down to a single score. But it will be a massive challenge for England, because this is plainly a very good and very dangerous Wales team. To my mind, they are reaping the benefits of integrating the youngsters over the last few seasons.
Indeed, let's turn it around and say England are now where Wales were two or three years ago. Everyone is saying we need to see some attacking flair from Stuart Lancaster's team and, of course, we all want that. But I don't think the critics appreciate how long it can take to gel a side together. We are in the very early stages of the process.
Contrast this with the Welsh. The likes of Leigh Halfpenny, Sam Warburton, Jonathan Davies and now George North and Alex Cuthbert have been fed in slowly. You only need to look at their back row or back three to understand the strides they have made. Dan Lydiate is the oldest back-row member at 24, but with Toby Faletau alongside Warburton that is a rock-solid combination with plenty of experience. Clearly, the exciting thought for Wales is that this established trio is so young that, fitness willing, they'll be around a long, long time.
Now look at their back three. Who would ever have thought they could have coped so comfortably with the recent retirement of Shane Williams? But then, Halfpenny was blooded for a few years, making him so experienced and, with Williams and others such as Lee Byrne, he helped bring on the likes of North and now Cuthbert. At just 23, Halfpenny is the oldest of this Welsh back three. It's remarkable really and testimony to the Welsh coaching staff's faith in youth. To my mind, England must show the same, too, and we all must recognise it will take a little time.
The make-up of the Welsh back line is strange in a way as, traditionally, they always had smaller backs who relied on their skill, not their muscle. Yeah, there have been players such as Scott Gibbs and then Gareth Thomas and Tom Shanklin – men who could put in a real hit. But on the whole, the typical Welsh back was known for his flair rather than his physique.
Halfpenny is the only member of the current back line who is under 6ft and weighs less than 15st. But what these backs have in size, they palpaply don't lack for in pace. We have known about Jamie Roberts for a long time, but then it was all about North going into the Scotland game. And what happens? Cuthbert on the other wing has a stormer.
Like North, Cuthbert is an out-and-out athlete and a product of this professional age. When they arrive at the professional clubs as teenagers they are already fully conditioned. It's all rather different from when I started out, a decade and a half ago, when you might get the occasional chance to use a gym. They hit the ground running with tremendous power and velocity nowadays.
Wales are certainly enjoying this new breed of professional. They will be difficult for England to master because they are expansive at the same time as being very hard, are great in attack, but so resolute in defence and have powerful ball-carriers as well as possessing speed merchants. They've got a giddying mix. It is Wales who have been the protagonists in the best two games in the Championship so far and I fully expect them to be involved in another classic a week Saturday.
If England need to focus on one thing, it is the manner in which Wales punished the Scots for their mistakes. There can be no errors, however unfortunate, as there were for England in Italy. Like France, Wales are clinical in the counter-attack off turnover and have the players with the exploitative qualities to put games to sleep in the space of 10 minutes. But I do think England can overcome the odds and prevail. And in next week's column I will tell you why.
Why make heavy weather of the vital elements?
So I settled down to watch France-Ireland with a takeaway on Saturday night and what appeared on my screen? That's right, country and western. My wife had to inform me why.
Of course, I understand the necessity to put player welfare first. But to call off such a high-profile match 10 minutes before kick-off? Shouldn't the decision have been made earlier, shouldn't they have heeded the forecast and worked out the possibilities and probabilities?
I felt for the players buzzing in the dressing rooms, but I felt more sorry for the travelling fans. Thank goodness common sense prevailed and the ticket-holders will be reimbursed.
I suppose there will now be a move to make stadiums more high-tech to allow the night kick-offs that TV loves. Yet looking at all those indoor arenas in America, and now springing up across the world, I just hope we never reach a day when suddenly the weather doesn't influence a game.
The elements are the variable I adore about rugby – how you have to alter your tactics if it's bucketing down or blowing a gale or whatever. It makes you think. And rugby union should be all about thinking.
Tuilagi and Flood give Lancaster hard choice
Stuart Lancaster and his fellow England coaches will have an interesting conundrum when it comes to selecting the 22 to face Wales. Do they introduce new faces, or do they remain faithful and stick with the same boys who have won their opening two games?
With the likes of Manu Tuilagi and Courtney Lawes available, the dilemma is obvious. Stuart will know England have to take up the attack a few notches and for this reason will feel tempted to start Manu in the centres.
He may only be 20, but you always know what you are going to get from my old Leicester team-mate. Manu will always get you over the gain-line. Like Courtney, he is one hell of a talent and has to be a central part of England's plans, certainly in the long term and perhaps in the very short term, too.
Then there's the choice to make at outside-half, with Toby Flood proving his well-being at the weekend. Charlie Hodgson has taken over my role as charger-down-in-chief in these first matches and has performed very well. It would be harsh to drop him, but Flood is the boy for the future. The same could be said about Ben Morgan, who is pushing hard for Phil Dowson's No 8 jersey. Stuart may have some tough choices to make.
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