Lewis Moody: My five ways England can bring down the red curtain
Thursday 23 February 2012
Realism has been the order of the day for England's Six Nations campaign so far and so it must continue on Saturday, regardless of this being the first game at Twickenham, or the fact that the visitors are Wales. In all the emotion, we must keep in mind where this England side are and where we hope they are going.
We also have to be honest and say that on paper, taking form and experience into consideration, the opposition are strong favourites to win. Indeed, on their day, Wales are probably five to 10 points better than we are at the moment.
However, that doesn't mean we can't win against Warren Gatland's men. I think we can. In fact, I feel there is a real opportunity. Yes, Wales have been impressive in the World Cup and some of their play in this Championship so far has been from the top drawer. But they have been far from perfect and have shown fallibility.
So what will it take from England to win? A mixture of the bloody obvious and the unashamedly patriotic. Here are my five key areas on which they should concentrate.
1. Feed off that Twickenham surge
It is very likely that at least a third of Stuart Lancaster's XV won't have played for England at Twickenham before. The inspiration these lads will feel should not be underestimated. It'll carry them another 10 metres, make them run hard for another 10 minutes. And if they can take it to the Welsh early, get the crowd on their side, they won't have experienced an energy surge like it.
The confidence they will have gained from their opening two wins will be magnified and that could be crucial to their attacking play, in particular. It's funny, but when a player is picked by his country he sometimes shrinks into his shell and forgets why he's there. I think there's been a bit of this going on in the first two games.
These players should remember they were picked for the qualities they have shown for their clubs and therefore, within the system, go out to put these qualities on show. The Twickenham crowd will respond if they do and once on the front foot they will be hard to get off it.
2. Basically, be honest
There's no secret. Win your line-outs, win your scrums, take the points that come on offer and try to minimise the mistakes. Do all these basics well and, I don't care what anyone says, England will make it tough for Wales.
It seems second-rower Tom Palmer has paid the price for England's scrappy line-out against Italy and it will be interesting to see what his replacement brings. The coaching staff are right to be ruthless in this regard as they know the basics simply have to be achieved. Wales have struggled in the line-out in the first two matches and have a hooker, Ken Owens, making his Six Nations debut.
England must ramp up the pressure on Owens and try to "get" to Wales. England must establish dominance in the forwards and gain the upper hand in the driving play. The big ball-carriers will have to have barnstormers and in this regard, I'll be intrigued to see who Lancaster goes for.
No disrespect to Phil Dowson but Ben Morgan offers more around the park and I will also be surprised if Courtney Lawes and Manu Tuilagi – who always but always crosses the gain line – aren't involved in some regard. They can help punch the holes and weaken the Welsh resolve. That will be crucial.
3. In behind the red curtain
Scotland showed that it is possible to get in behind the Welsh defence, but they didn't capitalise on the opportunities they created. This is key for England. They must keep it in hand, generate quick ball – whether through offload or speed of the rucks – and then rely on some of the proven finishers they have – Chris Ashton, David Strettle and Ben Foden – to do their business.
So far the attacking flair has been limited, to say the least, and against this Welsh defence it will be difficult in the extreme. Lancaster will have pondered starting with Tuilagi, as he plainly offers plenty in this aspect. The same is true of Toby Flood, although I can understand why Stuart would show loyalty to his No 10 Charlie Hodgson, the man who has scored England's only two tries.
There's a fine balance to be struck between continuity and finding some cutting edge. But find some England must.
4. Defence, defence, defence
It goes without saying that defence will be all-important. Just look at the mighty Wales backline and envisage the likes of Jonathan Davies, George North, Alex Cuthbert and Leigh Halfpenny out wide and Jamie Roberts bashing through the middle. And that's before you talk about the talents of their loose forwards and half-backs.
England's defence has been suspect on occasion in this Championship and, depending who Stuart picks, I would think the Welsh may target the Hodgson-Owen Farrell channel. They have to be ready for this.
England can't allow the back three any time on the ball, because they are so, so dangerous. If England do decide to test this young trio under the high ball, the chase must be as quick as it is clinical. Naturally, the hype will fall on North, but Cuthbert proved against Scotland his ability, as, of course, did the excellent Halfpenny. England's defence will likely have to be heroic, but again the crowd can help in this area.
5. Of the leash as underdogs
Favouritism brings its pressures. Whatever Wales may claim, that cannot be doubted. So, too, does history. And the fact Wales have won only once in Twickenham in the last 24 years is a phenomenal stat which may very well have an influence on this result.
Being the underdog at home gives a team a quiet confidence, a feeling of freedom even. The realism which is surrounding this transitional England squad is, I stress, so important, because it means the pressure to achieve great things immediately is not on them.
How to handle expectation comes with the experience and this England will learn to handle that over time. For now they must sense the opportunity which beckons them with a Welsh side the overwhelming majority are tipping to win and win comfortably. I have a hunch it will be close. England by a single but euphoric penalty.
The day I caught Six Nations fever
I made my Six Nations debut against Wales at Twickenham in 2002 and I know I caught the ball from the kick-off. But that's about it from a match which went by in a blur.
My main recollections of that day a decade ago was of the coach trip across from Pennyhill Park, of the crowds surrounding the coach, of getting off and entering Twickenham through the arches, under the Three Lions, of all the fans surrounding us, of people hanging over the balconies, of a sense of occasion I'd never felt before.
I remember sitting next to Martin Johnson, Lawrence Dallaglio and Jason Leonard and thinking, 'I'm here, next to the players I've looked up to'. I recall running out and being enveloped in a white blanket and, as an Englishman, feeling so secure in Twickenham's environment.
Yet most of all I remember one of the best experiences of my entire career. I hope the new boys feel the same way on Saturday, although I very much doubt whether they will have a similar result to celebrate.
We put 50 points on Wales that day to lift the Triple Crown.
My weekend picks
England 17 Wales 14; Ireland 30 Italy 15; Scotland 10 France 30
Lewis Moody is a TAG Heuer ambassador. TAG Heuer are the official watch of England Rugby
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