Friday 18 January 2019

Lancaster stays grounded despite team's flying start

England coach knows more hard work lies ahead

Ben Youngs of England breaks past Samson Lee and Richard Hibbard of Wales
Ben Youngs of England breaks past Samson Lee and Richard Hibbard of Wales

Paul Rees

Stuart Lancaster savoured the moment of a triumph on a ground where, two years before, he had endured his worst day in charge of England, but before he had boarded the team bus, his mind was on Saturday's encounter with Italy, at Twickenham, the second step to a Six Nations title that has so far eluded him.

England have only lost three matches in the championship since Lancaster took over in 2011, but they have been enough to condemn them to second place each time. The 21-16 victory over Wales at the Millennium Stadium was impressive enough for the bookmakers to install them as favourites, with three of their four remaining matches at Twickenham, but the head coach reacted dismissively when it was put to him that the third-round match against Ireland, in Dublin, would prove to be decisive.

"We've been in the championship under me for three years and come second three times," said Lancaster. "I won't be getting carried away by victory over Wales, even though it is right up there after the experience we had two years ago. I will be getting the players' feet back on the ground on Monday because we need to be better against Italy. We will certainly not be thinking about Ireland."

England achieved a second consecutive victory over Wales, group opponents in the World Cup later this year, despite being without several players who were injured. Lancaster expects the centres Brad Barritt and Kyle Eastmond to be able to take a full part in training this week, along with the second row Geoff Parling, as he ponders whether to change a winning side.

England achieved dominance in the set-pieces and, by the end - after switching from a predominantly kicking game to one where they kept the ball in hand more - they were on top in the back row. Their half-backs, Ben Youngs and George Ford, dictated play and disarmed Wales's vaunted rush defence. "George's ultimate strength is that he can make a mistake and it does not fluster him," said Lancaster. "He has incredible strength of character: it was his third start for England and he nailed a kick at the end, in an environment like Cardiff, that gave us a five-point differential. Otherwise, all it would have taken was a penalty against us at the breakdown, and Leigh Halfpenny's boot, to lose us the game.

"Ben was a key player. We were never going to get around the Welsh team because of the way they defend with so many men in the front line, but we felt we could play through them. If you have a defensive line that has a lot of width to cover the field there will be gaps in it, and I think Ben's running game - and our ability to chase him, through the James Haskells and Billy Vunipolas - caused gainline wins that gave us momentum."

Ford, who kicked 11 points, was making his first Six Nations start, along with England's two try scorers and fellow Bath players Anthony Watson and Jamie Joseph. Wales made much beforehand of their experience and continuity, rubbing it in by naming their team 48 hours early, but Lancaster's side showed nous, and were far smarter and more composed on the day.

"Wales have some big boys, but we felt our defence went well," said Joseph. "Playing outside George is a joy, and I look forward each time to going out on to the pitch with the guy. His game understanding and awareness are amazing, and he makes things happen. He is also tough: I never worry when he misses a kick or throws a loose pass because the next thing he does is usually world-class. He is one of the best players in the game."

Watson's try came at a crucial time for England, who, as they had done in the opening round against France, in Paris, the year before, trailed by 10 points in the first quarter. "To have battled back from that early deficit is big for us," he said. "We put a lot of work into our detail, so the atmosphere wasn't too much of a factor. We have work to do before Italy because we left a number of opportunities out there. We have to build on this and we are not getting ahead of ourselves."

The victory showed the strength in depth England have developed and, in their last two matches, they have defeated teams who are in their World Cup group - Australia and Wales. "The most pleasing thing is that we are building experience ahead of the World Cup," said Ben Youngs. "That said, we want to do as well as we can in this tournament. Guys put up their hands in the toughest of environments, but we will not be getting ahead of ourselves."


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