Tuesday 27 June 2017

Johnson desperate to start on front foot

Peter Bills

History, oh history! England haven't won the Six Nations since 2003, the year they lifted the Rugby World Cup.

They haven't beaten Wales, whom they meet in Cardiff tonight in the opening match of this year's championship, since Martin Johnson led them that year. And they start this Six Nations campaign without their captain Lewis Moody, Tom Croft plus dynamic young lock-forward Courtney Lawes.

As for Wales, they are in crisis. They have lost eight of their last 11 Test matches, winning just two. In the November Tests, they lost to Australia, South Africa and New Zealand. They couldn't even beat Fiji in Cardiff, drawing 16-16.

Then there is the injury plague that has struck their camp, too. They look likely to play this entire Six Nations season without two-thirds of their best front-row -- the Lions props Gethin Jenkins and Adam Jones. Lions hooker and Wales captain Matthew Rees must soldier on with two able but far less talented players beside him in Craig Mitchell and Paul James.

There are also serious absences behind the scrum, where Tom Shanklin, George North, Gavin Henson and Andrew Bishop are all out. In the last few days they have lost back-rower Toby Faletau for the season and wing Leigh Halfpenny for tonight's game after he damaged an ankle in training.

Yet England are so short of resources that they have had to ask 32-year-old veteran Mike Tindall to captain them for the first time in his long career.

Johnson knows that native passion alone dictates England will have a tough time tonight. Wales may have had a poor, dispiriting run of form but there is nothing like the sight of the English rose on white jerseys to stir their blood.

England will target the Welsh scrum with their heavy, powerful front five. But their line-out will be significantly weaker without Lawes and Croft. Behind the scrum, as ever, much will depend on the half-backs.

Ben Youngs is a darting, fast, elusive threat, but fly-half Toby Flood has yet to convince all judges that he is the real deal at international level.

Where England have real world-class is in their back three of Ben Foden, Chris Ashton and Mark Cueto. Given their attacking intent, pace and vision, it would surely seem sensible for England to embrace the new ball-in-hand running game.

Wales will hope to keep it tight, making first-up tackles count and frustrating their rivals into conceding penalties from which Stephen Jones might profit. But they look short of real firepower and quality in some key positions.

Tonight is crucial for England. Win in Cardiff and optimism will abound. Lose and they will start World Cup year firmly on the back foot. The stakes could not be higher.

Wales -- J Hook; M Stoddart, J Roberts, J Davies, S Williams; S Jones, M Phillips; A Powell, S Warburton, D Lydiate; A Wyn Jones, B Davies; C Mitchell, M Rees (capt), P James. Reps: R Hibbard, J Yapp, R Jones, J Thomas, D Peel, R Priestland, L Byrne.

England -- B Foden; C Ashton, M Tindall (capt), S Hape, M Cueto; T Flood, B Youngs; N Easter, J Haskell, T Wood; T Palmer, L Deacon; D Cole, D Hartley, A Sheridan. Reps: S Thompson, D Wilson, S Shaw, J Worsley, D Care, J Wilkinson, M Banahan.

Ref -- A Rolland (Ireland).

Wales v England,

Live, BBC1/RTE 2, 7.45

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