When England defeated Wales at the Millennium Stadium a year ago at the start of what was to be their first Six Nations title for eight years, they did so with more than a hint of a swagger.
They outplayed Wales and, in Toby Flood at outside-half, had a player whose spatial awareness was above that of anyone else on the field. Wales had spent the week making sure the blind-side area of a ruck was not guarded by two props because Flood would not waste the opportunity, and the one time it arose he flooded through and created a try for Chris Ashton.
Fast forward 12 months and it is Wales who are revelling in space. When they conducted their debrief after the opening round victory against Ireland in Dublin, their coach Warren Gatland, looking into the build-up into one of Ireland’s tries, pointed out that its genesis was a line-out which was formed after Rhys Priestland kicked to touch a few metres from his own line.
Gatland pointed out that as three players charged at Priestland looking to charge the kick down, players outside him were free. “It does not matter where you are on the field,” he told his players. “If the chance is there to run, take it.”
England have not run from their own half in the Six Nations so far, and they have not done so much in opposition territory either. It turned out that they were nearing their peak in Cardiff a year ago, reaching it against Italy the following week before starting a decline, gentle at first, that ended in a World Cup campaign so discordant that the conductor and a large section of the orchestra were laid off.
Have England gone back to basics or have they just gone back? Their tries in Edinburgh and Rome both came from Charlie Hodgson chargedowns, but one of the more enterprising outside-halves in England has not been required to get his line moving and Flood is now fit again.
Flood, though, has struggled for form since the World Cup and not long after Hodgson got England back into the game in Rome by getting his body in the way of Andrew Masi’s clearance, Flood’s attempted kick to touch for Leicester at Exeter was charged down and resulted in the home side’s only try in an eight-point victory.
There is an assumption that England will be more creative against Wales because they are at home and they will almost feel a moral obligation to move the ball after kicking and chasing in Edinburgh and Rome, but they will not beat Wales unless they are strong defensively. Manu Tuilagi would provide added thrust in midfield, but Brad Barritt has been their stand-out defender and shifting him to 12 is a risky option with Owen Farrell‘s goal-kicking proving so crucial.
Farrell is an outside-half by preference and a place will be found for him, but if the England interim head coach Stuart Lancaster wants to play with width, pace and ambition as much as he says he does, dropping Farrell might be the nudge his players need.
It has been done before. When Wales went to Twickenham in 1988, their then coach Tony Gray was frustrated by what he felt was a failure of his backs to take risks despite his constant urging, even though they included the like of Jonathan Davies, Mark Ring, Robert Jones, Ieuan Evans and Adrian Hadley.
Gray dropped the full-back, Paul Thorburn, one of the most accurate goal-kickers in international rugby. He did so not because Thorburn had done anything wrong: his replacement, Anthony Clement, a 10/12, had never worn the 15 jersey before.
Wales duly missed all their goal kicks, but they scored two tries to none in an 11-3 victory hat put them on course for a first triple crown in nine years. Gray’s shock therapy worked, but Lancaster is still at the stage where the result is more important than the performance: any old victory would do.
He is enjoying his honeymoon period. Had Martin Johnson still been in charge, England’s displays in Edinburgh and Rome would have generated widespread opprobrium, but the future can hold for a while.