England can out-scrap Italy
February 9, 2011
England flanker Tom Wood enjoyed a strong debut against Wales © Getty Images
England are off and running in this season's Six Nations following a comfortable victory over Wales in Cardiff but they will need to be focused this week as they prepare for one of world rugby's most thankless tasks - taking on Nick Mallett's notoriously spiky Italy.
It has become one of those no-win games for a lot of teams. If you thump them by a load of points then all of a sudden 'it's only Italy'. If they play really well and you struggle, everyone suddenly says that you should have done better.
Style also becomes increasingly important to some when playing the Azzurri but after watching Ireland suffer against their powerful pack I don't mind if England do scrap away for 80 minutes, I think they'll have enough to come out on top.
England have to ignore what everyone is saying about their free-flowing rugby. They must not turn it into a Sevens exhibition and should play a structured game. When there are chances to kick goals, you kick goals. When there are chances to cut loose, this is probably the most exciting English backline, particularly at halfback and in the back-three, that they've had for many a year.
One area of concern that arose at the Millennium Stadium was in midfield. On a couple of occasions in recent games Shontayne Hape has stepped out of the line and left a massive hole when the ball has been offloaded. England really need to sort that out.
If he's going to do it, he needs to take the guys outside with him so that they can close down, almost like a blitz defence. If he's going to go on his own then the problem that occurred when Wales scored their try could see England undone when it's a tighter game, against the French for example.
To counterbalance that shortcoming, there were a number of positives in the form of Tom Wood, England's latest lock pairing and the lineout work of under-fire hooker Dylan Hartley.
On debut, Wood did really well. I noticed him cramping quite a lot and it looked like he had a typical first cap performance. That game wouldn't have been any quicker than the European Cup games he's played in, but in your first cap time just seems to disappear. He wasn't at his natural pacing level, he got through about 80 minutes' work in the first-half, but added a lot with ball in hand and also at the lineout, where England really could have missed Tom Croft.
Staying with the set-piece, Hartley's throwing was absolutely superb. Wales coach Warren Gatland made a massive error by saying so early on that they were going to target him and they set themselves up for a fall. Talk beforehand that the scrums would go England's way and the lineouts Wales' way proved to be a red herring. As soon as that chatter begins, one team concentrates on preventing it. That was exactly what happened.
In the second-row, where the loss of Courtney Lawes could have been a huge blow, Tom Palmer and Louis Deacon were both excellent. Palmer has been playing really well this season but I don't think you can underestimate Deacon's impact - aside from his yellow card. He was calling the lineouts and did exceptionally well. The thing about Deacon is his impact on the things you don't see. I thought it was a really good balance between the two and sometimes you need that - guys who will do the nitty gritty and allow the more expansive players to shine.
England now have three home games before what is already being trumpeted as a possible Championship decider against Ireland in Dublin in the final round. Some have raised fears that they may get ahead of themselves but that won't happen. Most of the current squad are very young and quite new to international rugby. They are just excited to be playing. It's good that they have Italy coming up next, who aren't going to be easy but will be easier than the French on last weekend's evidence. It's another chance to build and the French are around the corner.
The might displayed by France at the scrum in their opening win over Scotland was hugely impressive, but I'd also reserve praise for a member of the beaten side - Glasgow lock Richie Gray. It's very difficult as a tight forward when your scrum is going backwards. In the second-row, when you're not on the frontline, you're just praying that there won't be many scrums and it can take your mind off the rest of your game. Gray could well be one of the superstars of this tournament and the Rugby World Cup. To be able to play well around the field when your bread and butter is not going well is the mark of real class in a player.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Ben Kay is a co-commentator for ESPN
"The days of when one team dominated the championship are a thing of the past, I think it will be even closer next year." The Phil Vickery column
The 2014 Six Nations has been and gone and the tournament has been painted green. Monday Maul looks back at the weekend's talking points
"The fairytale continued right to the end for the magic man." Tom Hamilton reports on the game that saw Brian O'Driscoll bid adieu with the Six Nations title
"It is a sign of how far this England team have come that they looked disappointed at the full-time whistle having just put 52 points on Italy." Tom Hamilton writes