England say that they want to take Wales on in attack on Saturday. England’s opening two victories were achieved by playing within themselves, but they believe more is needed to defeat the Six Nations leaders at Twickenham. But do England have the means at half-back and in the midfield to live up to their own ambition?
The attitude in how to shape an attack is different in England to the approach in Australia and New Zealand. Harlequins and Gloucester may be current exceptions to the rule, but English teams at all levels base their attack on going forward and crossing the gainline as soon as possible.
This is often done with a mentality of setting targets for forwards to hit, and everyone knows the potential repercussions of that: if you are too close to the set-piece, the opposition back row can get involved by slowing ball down, stealing it or forcing penalties to be conceded.
I had hoped the five-metre rule at scrums would free things up in the 9-13 area in England, but it merely seems to have encouraged No 8s to pick up and go forward or 12s to try and burst over the gainline.
I am not saying other countries do not have physical 12s. Ma’a Nonu is one of the best players in the the world at busting the gainline. But over the last couple of years New Zealand coaches have added variety to his game – Nonu now off-loads and gets the ball wide quickly when he needs to.
Other countries, particularly Down Under, use the principle of go forward to attack the gainline, not as an end in itself, but as a means of breaking the tackle line or off-loading the ball, keeping the move alive and dynamic.
Australian number 10s offer examples of how best to manipulate space. Stephen Larkham was a master at attacking the space between the attacking and defensive lines, using depth and speed. It is about getting across the gainline in different areas, not just from set-pieces, and making the defence think. Wales are in an exploration stage and it will be interesting to see how they get on against England.
Will they have the confidence to play as they have in their first two games and, indeed, will they win the sort of ball to allow them to do that? Wales’s backs are challenging physically, but they are also skillful.
I do not subscribe to the theory that England should produce better players than Australia between 9 and 13 because of the far great playing numbers we enjoy. Rugby union in Australia is in direct competition with Rugby league and Aussie Rules. In the battle for spectators and sponsors, a high tempo game based on movement is important and it spawns players with innate attacking ability, as well as mavericks like Quade Cooper.
New Zealand is similar and the Super 15 is more commercially oriented than the English Premiership. That is not a criticism but a factual observation. Players are encouraged to play with a lot more freedom than they are in England.
The coaching emphasis is also different. Players are at their most malleable and impressionable between the ages of 16 and 21, but England’s young players are pushed too much toward conditioning and core skills than on learning to play the game.
What you want is decision-makers in a game and when you look at making up a world team between 9 and 13 you think of Will Genia, Dan Carter, Matt Giteau and Conrad Smith, players with real footballing ability, who are about far more than conditioning and core skills.
Stuart Lancaster, England’s interim head coach, does not have those options. His choice of half backs, fly-halves and number 12’s present a range of options, but none of the players available can react to the field in front of them with the facility of their top Southern Hemisphere counterparts. They have been given too many rigid game plans growing up.
England also maintain their remarkable capacity to deliver slow ball, another reason why Ben Youngs has been struggling. I cannot imagine England hanging on by their fingertips and beating Wales because the opposition will be too good – but will they have the courage, the skill and the creativity, simply to go out and play?