Question time for the white army

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The Independent Online

Putting it bluntly, if England attack like they did against Ireland and defend like they did against France then Wales are in for a torrid time at Twickenham on Saturday. But thisis the championship andthings don't always work out as neatly at that.

Putting it bluntly, if England attack like they did against Ireland and defend like they did against France then Wales are in for a torrid time at Twickenham on Saturday. But thisis the championship andthings don't always work out as neatly at that.

For a start, England's adventurous rampage in one match and their impersonation of a brick wall topped with razor wire in the other were performed against opposition who weren't functioning properly. Ireland were a mess, and a non-aggressive and nontackling mess at that, while France made the big mistake of trying to out-muscle England after being forced to play with an unsuitable outside-half. In neither game were England put to the right tests.

This doesn't mean to say that I saw nothing to admire in England's display in Paris. In fact, I thought they were magnificent and I was particularly impressed with their defence and the continuous high tempo at which they played. But France could and should have won in the last five minutes, if not before.

However, their problems really started once they lost first Christophe Lamaison and then Alain Penaud at stand-off. Thomas Castaignÿde was unable to provide the tactical kicking from No 10, while Richard Dourthe didn't have the penetrating pace of Castaignÿde at full-back.

In my view, the best all-round performance we've seen in the championship so far has been France's at Cardiff. But, the changes altered their approach in a serious way. If Lamaison or Penaud are able to play at Murrayfield on Saturday I fear that Scotlandare going to experience what England did not.

But I am taking nothing away from England. After all, they beat France in Paris. I thought Lawrence Dallaglio and Jonny Wilkinson were the pick of an excellent team. Wilkinson put in the biggest hitting performance I've ever seen from a stand-off.

England didn't show much in the creative sense but derived great strength from the pace they were able to inject into defence and attack and the way they recycled the ball. And what will make them extra dangerous on Saturday is the confidence gained from the first two matches.

They have players in the backs who have no inhibitions and are not required to conform to any rigid system. They have three players in Wilkinson, Mike Catt and Austin Healey who can operate at stand-off from second phase and that gives many options.

It is a formidable prospect for the Welsh particularly as they are coming into the game with some doubts about their fitness. The Welsh players are not too happy that on Grandstand last weekend Jerry Guscott questioned their fitness. It was a thought echoed by Ieuan Evans and by me, although not quite as forcefully.

The point is that after 40 minutes against France and 60 minutes against Italy, the Welsh went off the boil. It might have been concentration or it might have been tiredness. But it is not a question that can be avoided, because the least that Wales will need on Saturday is to keep their foot flat on the pedal for a full 80 minutes.

I can't believe that, with a conditioning coach so able as Steve Black, Wales are suffering from a lack of preparation. But I wouldn't be surprised if they were feeling the effects of the past year or so. After last year's Five Nations, Wales had a demanding tour to Argentina and then played four matches at the new Millennium Stadium in the run-up to the World Cup. In sharp contrast, England had a comparatively restful summer and a gentle World Cup warm-up.

I have no doubts that every Welsh player will be fully ready for this one and, while they most certainly start as underdogs, they have a chance if they play to the full extent of their capabilities. That's the key. If the pack can get parity at the scrums and line-outs, if they can break up the game with a bit of variety and turn them with kicks like the French never did, Wales have as good a chance as they had at Wembley last year. It all depends on how effectively Wales can ask the questions that England haven't yet needed to answer.

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