England hit on explosive midfield mix
August 27, 2011
England's Mike Tindall looks to force an opening with Manu Tuilagi looming in support © Getty Images
The fist pump from manager Martin Johnson at the final whistle said it all. England are back on track for the Rugby World Cup thanks to another power-packed display from their forwards and a lacklustre showing from an Ireland side on the wane at the worst possible time.
England may not be the finished article but they can board the plane to New Zealand confident in the fact that they are heading in the right direction. A victory over Wales and a first success in Dublin for eight years, and more importantly the performances, offer plenty of reason for hope ahead of their latest assault on the sport's biggest prize. And even in defeat to Wales they can take positives from the fact that their forwards dictated much of the contest.
The one major concern has been the lack of a creative spark to make that forward dominance pay a rich dividend. But in despatching Ireland on the own patch for the first time since the Class of '03, destined for the World Cup glory, wrapped up a Grand Slam, they may well have found a solution to that age-old problem.
The midfield has long been pinpointed as the crux of the matter with Johnson opting for 13 different centre combinations during his three and a half year tenure but he may have struck upon the explosive mix he has been after in the form of T'N'T - veteran Mike Tindall and the raw yet talented Manu Tuilagi. The 20-year-old Tuilagi celebrated his second Test appearance as he did his first - with a try. His pace and power exploited the defensive shortcomings of Ireland's Keith Earls who can be forgiven for losing his bearings having been deployed in a variety of positions of late, a victim of his own versatility.
Despite being a Test match novice, the Samoan-born Tuilagi has surely earned a place in England's plans for the opening World Cup clash with Argentina in two weeks time. His boundless energy and sheer physical presence make him a threat not only with ball in hand but also in defence as unlucky Ireland flanker David Wallace will attest.
Tuilagi's presence alone could be enough to bring a much-needed extra dimension to England's play but aligned with Tindall's experience the potential appears much greater going by the results of their first public appearance. Tindall was able to shepherd his young team-mate in defence, switching to outside centre in the process, while providing him ammunition in attack.
But Tindall was no support player, he had an equal if not greater say in the course of this game. He fed off his partner's abrasive approach in defence, ripping the ball from victims still dazed by the initial hit or denying a quick recycle, but also showed some rare flair with ball in hand. With fly-half Jonny Wilkinson not having his most influential game the stage was set for Tindall to answer some of his critics and underline his worth and he did just that most notably with a delicate nudge through for Delon Armitage's try.
His role as a mentor for Tuilagi will sit well with the captaincy should Tindall continue to lead in the absence of the injured Lewis Moody. In both roles he will be charged with bringing the best out of the rookie but may need to take a harsher line with the rest of his side in the wake of a worrying amount of penalties that irritated both Ireland and referee Nigel Owens and resulted in a yellow card for Chris Ashton.
If only Ireland's woes stretched to indiscipline. The decision to play four warm-up Tests may have had its merit when first announced but in hindsight looks foolish. Four defeats leave the side desperately short of confidence and just three victories in nine matches this year suggests they may have forgotten how to win. Add in the injury toll and instead of providing a springboard into the tournament, this month appears to revealed some worrying cracks in their armour that a select side's victory over Connacht in midweek cannot plaster over.
'No wins, no form, no momentum, no captain' ran a line in the Irish Independent on the morning of the game in what appeared to be a rather harsh assessment of the state of play. But on reflection it may be a little closer to the truth than first thought. The defeats appear to have robbed them of confidence and as much as they toiled they could not find the intensity that enabled them to gate-crash England's Grand Slam party a few short months ago.
Veteran fly-half Ronan O'Gara showed that it is not all about power with some delightful touches but Gordon D'Arcy and Earls found themselves outmuscled by their English rivals in midfield. Blindside Stephen Ferris, making his first start in eight months, survived an otherwise damaging day for Ireland's back-row resources but struggled to make headway. Winger Andrew Trimble was a sizeable thorn in England's side but fellow speedster Tommy Bowe, so often England's tormentor, was a bit part player at best.
Yes - they miss the presence of Brian O'Driscoll in midfield and flanker Sean O'Brien but it will take a super-human effort from those two to inject some much-needed zip back into this side in the next two weeks especially in the wake of yet more injuries. The onus is now on coach Declan Kidney, far from immune to criticism himself, to rescue his side's World Cup campaign before it has begun - such is the damage caused in the last few weeks. Ireland's World Cup opener against the USA would appear to grant them some time to right the wrongs but on this form you fear for them against a fired up Italy - let alone an Australia side fresh from winning the Tri-Nations.
It is not all bad for Ireland. The intensity of the game may not have rivalled the Tri-Nations decider earlier in the day but the gruelling nature of this contest will serve them, and England, well in the coming weeks as they look to lead Europe's challenge at the world's top table. But they need to find form, direction and leadership and fast. The alternative is another lacklustre World Cup campaign when the talent at their disposal demands so much more.
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Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.
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