Austin Healey Column
England have major cause for concern
March 12, 2013
Can England's Chris Ashton silence his critics with a return to top form against Wales on Saturday? © Getty Images
England have some serious food for thought ahead of their Six Nations showdown with Wales - but sadly not every area of concern is within their control.
Any Englishman who is not concerned about Steve Walsh refereeing Saturday's match need only look back 12 months to the controversial clash between the sides at Twickenham. There were some glaring issues in that game most notably when he failed to go back for a penalty after England's David Strettle was denied a try in the dying moments of the game.
But that didn't surprise me because as far as I am concerned he has always had an issue with England - ever since that incident with Dave Reddin at the 2003 Rugby World Cup. How the IRB or whoever selects the referees for these fixtures cannot see that is beyond me - and why do we have to have southern hemisphere referees for these big games anyway? People might argue that our leading refs can't handle games involving their own nation but officials don't think like that. I believe Walsh is a good referee, but he has had something against England for a number of years and the fact that he will be in charge in Cardiff is a real worry.
But England have a number of issues a little closer to home - or to be more specific on the right wing where I think Stuart Lancaster has backed himself into a corner. It's very en vogue to criticise Chris Ashton but there is a reason for that - because his form warrants it. What concerns me most is his level of commitment. If I was England coach, I could not have a player on the field who I didn't think was prepared to put his body on the line.
When you see someone go up for a high ball and turn their back, that is copping out of making one of two possible decisions. England did a lot of box kicks against Italy and your right winger is your chaser for box kicks, your first man there who then has two choices - he either competes in the air with his eyes on the ball or he bides his time, waits for the man to land and then nails him. Either option is a positive for your team. What you don't do, and what players who are weak in the air and weak in terms of commitment tend to do, is nonchalantly jump around the catching area with your back to the ball. That is what Ashton did on numerous occasions and it is as bad as chasing a kick off and not trying to get past blockers to make the tackle.
I accept the fact that he is not getting much ball and he ran some nice support lines and came close to scoring but the negatives far outweigh those good points. Had Lancaster shaken things up for the Italy game and thrown someone like Christian Wade, Jonny May or Strettle into the mix then they could have gained some much-needed experience and maybe even provided a spark and made any selection decision this week a lot easier. But Lancaster would have to be very brave to make a change now for a game as important as this one and in a cauldron where experience will be vital. As a result he can't drop Ashton now; it is more difficult to drop him this week than it was last week.
I made a few tongue-in-cheek comments on Twitter at the weekend, including saying that England could not have had a better warm-up going into this game but there can be little doubt that it will serve as a right kick up the backside. Some individual performance were terrible , their defence was only OK and their physicality was not as impressive as it has been while their control at half back was another big issue.
The scrum was good and the lineout was OK which makes the injuries to Geoff Parling and Joe Launchbury all the more worrying. England need Parling because they will need to steal lineout ball against Welsh and starve the hosts of possession so that Owen Farrell, who will come back into the side, can push them around the pitch. Brad Barritt and Manu Tuilagi have had better games but I don't think it was their fault - fly-half Toby Flood tried to put them through non-existent holes and there were no decoy runners stretching the defence.
England are going to have to do something difference against Wales and I'm hoping that they were just keeping something in their locker against the Italians and did not want to show off. I think you really need to test Wales with pacey game. There were a lot free kicks and penalties that appeared made for scrum-half Danny Care that were not used as I thought they might have been. Against Wales, if there are four of them on the floor let's tap the pen and go. Up the tempo and really make it difficult for them. Look at how well Ireland did against them in the first half of their victory in Cardiff. If you opt for a high tempo game, move the point of attack, smash rucks, generate quick ball and decent ball and don't take too many risks then you will move forward against them.
One man standing in England's way will be Sam Warburton. Two weeks ago everyone thought he had blown his chance of getting on the British & Irish Lions' plan to Australia. Then he pulls out a top performance like he produced at the weekend against Scotland where he was dynamic and very strong over the ball. Scotland's Kelly Brown and Ireland's Sean O'Brien may disagree, but Warburton's head-to-head with England's Chris Robshaw could be the shoot-out for the Lions' No.7 shirt.
England face a hard task and Wales will enter the game as favourites but they have to win by seven points and in the Six Nations, in a game of this magnitude, that is no easy feat. And if England want to get the job done they need to think a bit more about where they are putting players in attacking positions - there was no sleight of hand at all against Italy and to beat Wales they are going to need plenty of that and plenty of muscle as well.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Austin Healey is Lead Analyst for ESPN Rugby