Building on the foundations
March 13, 2012
Ben Kay was impressed by the try-scorer Tom Croft © Getty Images
Stuart Lancaster appears to be the hot favourite to take the full-time England job and the Rugby Football Union must be tempted to go on the results he's produced and appoint him - something that I'm also guilty of. But with a planning hat on, these results shouldn't really matter that much - the best person for the job is the best person for the job.
However, whatever happens, Lancaster is in an ideal situation. If he doesn't get the job this time around then he's got the international experience under his belt and every club in the land will be clamouring for him - along with the RFU to keep him in charge of the Saxons you'd expect.
I almost think that the RFU will be doing him a favour if they don't pick him as he will be in an even stronger position in a couple of years time. He'll get more experience and if he takes the job now, everyone will be expecting things to continue to improve from the France game - so at the moment he's in a win-win situation.
But speculation aside, it was a fantastic win against France. It proved they have a bit of spine about them. The worry, looking back at the game, was that they raced out to their early lead and they didn't really know what to do with themselves as they were so far ahead. This meant they stopped playing the same brand of rugby they started the game with. But the composure at the end was first rate and they are not far off being a very useful side.
But while it was a great win, there are areas to address - most notably the penalty count but I think that Alain Rolland did not have the best of games. The sin-binning of Charlie Sharples was a joke but the penalty count was high as were the missed tackles so they need to tighten up in that respect but they made up for it with the quality of their line speed which put the two French half-backs under pressure. You could see that Julien Dupuy was looking around trying to find his fly-half and was constantly getting caught with the ball so their pressure game was first-rate.
And there was one stand out player. How Tom Croft didn't get man of the match is beyond me - he was exceptional. I really rate him; I'd have him in my side all the time. He can do things that no one else in the world can do in his position. His lineout ability was simply fantastic. When England had a couple of wobbles they went to him early in the second-half and continued to hit him at different areas in the lineout and he put a real settler in that department. For Geoff Parling to have that easy option at the set-piece is huge.
His try was unbelievable and one that not many other back-rowers could have scored. But while he was superb going forward, what set him out from the rest was his defensive work. There was a moment where he was last in the line and France switched the ball and Croft managed to step inside and not miss the tackle regardless of the late change of direction. His work rate after England scored the try - most people would be patting themselves on the back - did not ease as he covered when Phil Dowson was knocked out which proved what a good hard worker he is.
One key aspect of the match with Ireland on Saturday is the battle between him and Stephen Ferris. Both have contrasting styles but both are supreme athletes. Crofty is probably more in the quicker mould and Ferris is all about his strength so it's how those two manage to manipulate the game. I really rate the pair and both are going head to head for the Lions blindside shirt.
Another key battle on the field is between Jonathan Sexton and Owen Farrell at fly-half. Farrell was superb again in the early exchanges on Sunday and you have to think that Sexton will want a piece of all the praise that has been heaped on Farrell. The back-row is also huge. Chris Robshaw will have a tough challenge against Sean O'Brien.
I also think that England can go after the Ireland front-row. The Irish have been talking up their scrum but England were harshly done by when they lost to Ireland last year in Dublin. Bryce Lawrence was the referee that day and for me is the worst referee of scrums in the world. They have a point to prove and they will have a lot of confidence after what they did to the likes of Nicolas Mas and Jean-Baptiste Poux.
Elsewhere this weekend, Scotland are in the horrible position of battling to avoid the Wooden Spoon. They are a frustrating team and almost most think they got too good. They are now perhaps not going into games hoping to capitalise on team's mistakes and are instead attempting to play a bit and have got to a level where they aren't trying to be the underdogs and that's almost costing them the odd result.
They need to go through this period of bad results but with better rugby being played if they are to take their place back on the world stage. So in that respect - Andy Robinson needs to be patient. However, whether he's there at the end of the Six Nations is another thing - both from Scotland and his point of view. You also have to question whether Scott Johnson would have moved up to Scotland to be an assistant coach?
And in the big clash of the weekend - I expect Wales to complete the Grand Slam. They have got things right in the key games and have proved in the past that they can deal with the pressure of the Millennium Stadium crowd and win the big games.
But having said that, they are up against the most unpredictable side in world rugby. When you have people like Wesley Fofana scoring tries they are always dangerous and France have the ability to produce a big performance out of nowhere. But I don't think they are organised enough to win it and will have too many holes for the Welsh backline to exploit.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Ben Kay is a co-commentator for ESPN
Ireland coach Joe Schmidt won the tactical battle and set his team on course for a shot at the Grand Slam. Tom Hamilton reports from Dublin
With the World Cup only a few months away, the last thing France needed was doubts over the future of their coach, writes Huw Richards
They came to Murrayfield looking to put down a marker, but Scotland were sent home with their tails between their legs, writes Tristan Barclay
The controversial tackling technique will be in full swing in Dublin on Sunday, writes Conor O'Shea, and could be a decisive factor for Ireland