For the first time in some years, England entered this RBS 6 Nations championship with genuine hope. Not quite expectation because, for all the recent improvement, they have not been consistent enough to justify that. We’ve been hurt before.
In the last two sets of internationals, in Australia in the summer and in the Autumn internationals at Twickenham, England have produced one outstanding performance and one poor performance. While this would be par for the course for the French, the question on the lips of supporters has been ‘which is the real England?’ The balanced view is that it is too early to judge. A very good performance does not make a very good team. Average teams can play above themselves now and then. England were efficient rather than very good in Cardiff. In that context, how much should we read into the victory?
The win in Cardiff however was another step forward. No away win is to be sneezed at, particularly not in the cauldron that is Cardiff when England go there, however bereft of confidence Wales may be. This was the sort of game which good teams win. When England, through their own making, gave Wales a chink of light, there was momentary worry but the conviction with which England closed out the game was impressive.
Three years ago at Twickenham, these teams found themselves in much the same position. England panicked and Wales took spectacular advantage, overturning a deficit of two scores to win the game. That never looked particularly likely to happen on Friday night. England did what they needed to win. They were not at their best as they themselves admitted, but they kept their shape in both attack and defence (apart from Shontayne Hape’s aberration for the Welsh try). When a player made a mistake, one of his teammates was on hand to clear up the mess.
Part of top level sport is finding a way to win, even when some things are not going as expected. When something needs doing, someone takes responsibility. England’s scrum did not dominate as much as expected but their lineout, perceived a potential weakness, made up for it and was outstanding. In the absence of Lawes and Croft, Tom Palmer came to the fore when he was needed. Ben Youngs, the catalyst of all England’s best play in recent months, was short of his sharpest form but Flood outside him stepped up and ran the game with greater assurance than at any stage of his international career to date.
A 7-point victory against a team with no wins in their past 8 games may not seem like much, but this win was a bigger step forward than a less-than-perfect performance would suggest. They showed qualities which England teams of late have lacked. They were resourceful, clinical, calm, didn’t panic and made good decisions at the right time. However it is important to reserve judgement until further into the Championship. Sterner tests lie ahead and it remains to be seen whether England have yet developed any form of consistency.
Italy will present a completely different set of challenges. England’s best performances have come against Australia and Wales, two teams who play at pace and try to make the pitch as large as possible. That suits England’s new style. Italy are the polar opposite. They will set out to stifle, frustrate and slow the game down. They will present a physical challenge not far off that provided by the Springboks who exposed England so badly. Once again England will have to show resourcefulness and find a way to win come what may.
Then they have France and Scotland. France, as unpredictable as they have ever been which is saying something, started the tournament well but they lost by 60 points two games ago and have not enjoyed recent trips to Twickenham. Scotland are an improving side and could be a threat but have not won at Twickenham for over two decades. Italy have never beaten England. Such history may be of limited relevance but the tournament could be opening up for England with three consecutive home games.
But before we get ahead of ourselves, there was plenty to work on after the Wales game which is no bad thing. Martin Johnson is not a man to let his team relax after one victory. They still need to find a ruthless streak – they should have put the game to bed when they had a succession of pick-and-gos on the Welsh line but their technique was poor and the forwards got white-line fever. We are also yet to see if England can keep their shape against the sort of onslaught they can expect from France and which Wales never really looked like achieving.
England have room for improvement but plenty to be positive about after Friday. The upward trajectory of the past 8 months continues and, quietly and within reason, optimism can justifiably grow.
By Stuart Peel