The visit of Ireland today presents England with just the kind of test they need to discover what they are about as a team.
The World Cup in England is only 18 months away. If Stuart Lancaster’s team are to be considered genuine contenders to lift that trophy they have to prove to themselves and to others that they can deliver a result when they are under the gun.
We have seen some encouraging displays. The result in Scotland was a thoroughly professional job in difficult conditions. They dominated Scotland in every department of the game and in more favourable weather that crushing superiority would have been reflected in the score.
We saw against New Zealand at Twickenham in the autumn and in Paris in the Six Nations opener the progress that England are making. They put together impressive attacking phases but in both games let winning positions slip late on. You can’t win the World Cup turning over ball on your own line a few minutes from the end, as they did against the All Blacks.
And after recovering from a sloppy opening to lead France, they made crucial errors when the replacements came on to gift the result to the French. It was a brilliantly taken try but it was English defensive errors, and Luther Burrell playing out of position on the wing, that cost them the win.
Ireland come to Twickenham on the back of a comprehensive win against Wales. I didn’t see that coming. The Welsh just couldn’t cope with the ferocity and intensity of the Irish pack and their defence was shredded. After seeing what they did to a strong Wales team I make Ireland favourites to take the Six Nations. But again, that’s no bad thing for England this close to the World Cup.
Lancaster has enjoyed a period of comparatively low expectation. It is easier to perform under those conditions. Let’s see how they cope when they are expected to put in a big performance at Twickenham and deliver the win that the England fans demand against a fierce rival in rampant form.
Chris Robshaw will be expecting big things today Chris Robshaw will be expecting big things today The captain, Chris Robshaw, has spoken of his desire to make Twickenham the fortress it was before England won the Webb Ellis Trophy a decade ago. That process starts today.
I note with interest that the boys will walk through the Lion Gate from the West car park instead of leaving the team bus from the concourse. As a player I just wanted to get into the changing room and on to the pitch as quickly as possible. I get what Lancaster is trying to do and recognise the importance of players connecting with fans. It’s great PR but I’m not sure it’s going to make that much difference to the outcome. The players will go along with it but by the time they’re stepping off that bus they are already gearing up for battle and won’t be paying too much attention to what’s going on around them.
The loss of Dan Cole is an obvious blow to England, but with the new rules governing the scrum not quite the difficulty it might have been. Tight head is still the pivot that binds the scrum but the front-row ferocity of old has been tempered – besides, David Wilson had a brilliant start to the season before coming down with a calf injury. I have no doubt he will bring that form to this match, despite only 47 minutes’ playing time since the turn of the year. He will be good for an hour at least. It will also be good to see Henry Thomas get a run in this kind of encounter.
England’s chief concern in terms of back-up is at fly-half, where Lancaster has few specialist options if he lost Owen Farrell. The selection of George Ford is therefore significant and we can expect to see him on the pitch at some point, preferably from a winning position, but he might learn even more if England are behind.
Ford has flourished since moving from Leicester to Bath. His attacking instincts are first-class and he has been arguably the outstanding player of the season so far. If there are any question marks about him it is in defence but you would expect him to come up with the answers, given his father was a defence coach in the previous England regime.
Lancaster is gathering a talented squad with impressive strength in depth. The arrival of Sam Burgess from the NRL in October is an exciting development that could give him what he is looking for in a part of the pitch that has provided Lancaster the most selection headaches. England have had a problem at centre since Will Greenwood retired. We have produced lots of biff in that position, strong runners who make the yards and crash into the tackle, but not too many who see the pass and spot the gaps.
It’s a gamble, obviously, and this World Cup might be too early for him, but he is definitely a class player. I remember the impact Jason Robinson made when he crossed over from rugby league before the 2003 World Cup. He was a one-off, blessed with God-given talent. I recall the day Clive Woodward had to tell Matt Perry he couldn’t select him. Perry never let England down. He was one of England’s most consistent performers, winning 33 straight caps, but Robinson was just too precious a talent to ignore.
I’m not saying Burgess is in that class. I’ve heard some rumblings about playing him in the back row, but we can discount that. It’s just too specialist a position. There is barely enough time for him to adjust to playing at centre. Robinson had a couple of years to make the transition, and he was a rugby genius.
That’s for the future. On the basis of what we’ve seen so far in the Six Nations I can see Ireland edging this by three to five points.