England boast an exciting balance
March 2, 2011
England's Tom Palmer wins a lineout on his way to the Man of the Match honour against France at Twickenham © Getty Images
England's latest Six Nations success against France at Twickenham may not have been the visual feast some were expecting but you will not hear Martin Johnson complaining.
The Six Nations often demands that you grind out a victory because it almost turns into a knock-out competition when you are going for the Grand Slam. That added pressure can generate tense matches that are a bit like a final and Saturday's clash was one of those games.
The result may have been more important than the performance but I was particularly impressed by England's front five who did very well up against what has been a dominant French pack. You could see that they had learnt from what was a very physical encounter against South Africa back in November when some suggested they were out-muscled. It's very easy to say they took a battering on that day when you are looking at the performance from the outside and while that may have been the case I think that result had more to do with the momentum of that particular game.
I am sure they would have spoken about that defeat leading up into the French fixture and there was no way that they were going to get bullied on this occasion. This current England side is far from being a soft touch and I am sure they would love another crack at the Springboks to prove a few people wrong.
England are still a young side who are learning and improving at an exceptional rate. I am very excited by the balance that Johnno has now got within the team with a mix of young guys and older heads making for a potent combination. The rising stars may grab the headlines but you cannot underestimate the influence of the likes of Nick Easter, Mike Tindall and Jonny Wilkinson. Comparisons with 2003 are inevitable and while the current team has shades of the squad that went on to win the World Cup the Class of '11 still has some way to go in terms of development.
It was great to see another strong performance from both England second rows - Tom Palmer and Louis Deacon - who are clearly bursting with confidence at the moment. Tom rightfully claimed the Man of the Match honour and once again Louis was an unsung hero. Just six months ago he was thinking that he may never get back to playing due to his injury problems and now he is just relishing every opportunity. When you come back from such a low place you are just happy to be playing again and he certainly looks like he's having a great time.
Not for the first time, England were grateful for Wilkinson's steadying hand. He is such a calming influence and I don't think there is a better kicker under pressure anywhere else in the world. I am sure he would like to get back into the starting XV but as a squad player he has no equal. And from a player's point of view, if your starting 10 gets a knock it is a huge boost to be able to look around and see someone like Jonny warming up. You also know he is going to defend like an extra back-rower and I would argue that he is just as valuable now as a bench player as he was when he was starting all the time.
Next up for England is the challenge of the Scots which should hold very little fear. If the game was at Murrayfield you would maybe expect the 'auld enemy' to conjure a backlash of sorts but away from home and reeling from three straight defeats I do not expect much of a challenge.
It comes down to confidence. Scotland had some coming into the Championship but the defeat to Wales will have knocked it out of them. They made a better fist of it this past weekend but I have little doubt that England will rule the roost at Twickenham. The only worry they will have is the breakdown but you can bet John Wells will have a big impact on training this week.
Andy Robinson has done a fantastic job in galvanising what is great about Scottish rugby - the emotion of pulling on that shirt and playing with real passion - and they certainly have a bit of steel about them but they do not appear to learning from what have been some desperately disappointing results.
In contrast England are almost spoilt for choice with Lewis Moody and Tom Croft set to add to the competition for back-row places. I can see Lewis coming back into the mix but it all depends on his injury. The decision may be taken out of Johnno's hands - which he may be thankful for - but either way he is not going to lose a great deal.
James Haskell has been playing really well while Tindall has been leading the team superbly so I don't think it would be the end of the world for the team. Your captain would normally be the last the person you would want to see injured but this period of time has given Johnno the opportunity to bring some guys into the fold and make them part of something special and with the World Cup looming that is incredibly important.
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Ben Kay is a co-commentator for ESPN