England are different under Stuart Lancaster. There is a great morale around the squad, more enthusiasm, a big desire to do well for each other. We are a tight group and it helps to have a good tactical plan that is easy to understand.
Sadly I won’t be playing against France because I have a stress fracture in the shin and the specialist said that I just can’t keep playing on it. I will be out for a month or two. But I am sure we have what it takes to beat France.
Of course they are a strong team, very unpredictable with a lot of players who can make a difference. But their scrum is not as strong as ours and if you can get on top early against France, then you can have a good day. France have done well to come back in their last two games, but their scrum has helped. Scotland and Ireland are two of the best lineouts in the Championship, but maybe don’t have so much power as England.
England have a chance in Paris because of defence and attitude. When Gary Neville came and spoke to us he said that he felt he didn’t achieve anything with England. He had 85 caps, but England didn’t win anything. He would have traded in 80 of those caps to have won the European Cup with England. That meant something. We can play as long as we like, but it doesn’t mean a thing if we don’t win some tournaments.
You can see some of that desire coming through with this new England team. Chris Robshaw has led by example. He talks sense, makes a load of tackles and does a huge amount of the dirty work. We will need that against France.
England had no weak links in defence against wales. We trained for it. We stopped them at source, hit the big runners low and put a lot of pressure on them. All week we hit tackle bags, got back on our feet and went again. Goalkeepers constantly practise getting to their feet quickly but so do rugby players.
Big breaks can change matches but so can tackles. Manu Tuilagi is one of the biggest, most physical tacklers I have come across, but it is an area of play that I also pride myself on. You need to be willing to put your body on the line and you need a combination of animal instinct and technique.
Being a tall man, I work on a low body angle and getting my timing right. You have to know when to hit and when to pull out. You also have to be careful not to hit too hard – yes, I know, it’s difficult – because the huge hit can happen before you have time to get the arms into the tackle.
The ref has to at least think you have tried to wrap the player as well as hit him. That is a very fine line, the same instant judgement call that the jackal has to make when he is over the ball. It’s risk, but there’s also huge reward.
In the Challenge Cup final against Bourgoin a couple of years ago, I saw Morgan Parra running across the pitch and was able to anticipate the space he was moving into. My timing was just right. Parra, who I rate highly, was passing the ball at the moment I hit him. He left the field, we won the cup.
Maybe a big tackle will help England win on Sunday. Don’t bet against Manu.