'Use Manu as an impact sub against Ireland'
February 6, 2013
Will Billy Twelvetrees' try-scoring debut be enough to keep him in the team © PA Photos
England will go to Dublin on Sunday looking to build on their impressive opening round win over Scotland that came courtesy of a very efficient performance. Looking back, I thought Scotland would be a little bit more physical and that they would compete harder at the breakdown but they found that difficult because of the tempo that England played at.
Stuart Lancaster's men found a pace and a pattern where they looked comfortable in contrast to the England from the not too distant past that would go through the phases but then ran out of ideas and end up having to kick their possession away. Thankfully there were very few occurrences of that against the Scots which shows that this team is really coming together. That holds you in great stead for the rest of the tournament as even when you are up against it, you can fall back into your own, familiar pattern.
Central to their victory was Owen Farrell's performance. He is currently by far and away England's first-choice fly-half and it is going to take some serious unstitching to remove him. There is stability in that position for the first time since the days of Jonny. His performances are not necessarily flash or maverick but that's not what you always want in your No.10, especially if the rest of the side are performing. If your team is struggling then you need a spark, but if everyone is doing their part then he just brings it together - Toby Flood must find his best form if he wants that shirt back.
Lancaster now faces the unenviable task of picking his team for Sunday's match with Ireland with a lot of the focus on who they will pick at No.12 and No.13. Before the New Zealand game everyone was talking about the imbalance of the Brad Barritt and Manu Tuilagi partnership but they were huge against the All Blacks and had Manu not been injured then Billy Twelvetrees would have been on the bench for the Scotland game. But the debutant took his chance, playing against an opposition that was okay, and that was encouraging.
Now Lancaster has a difficult decision - does he believe that Twelvetrees can perform against the big stars? Or will he back the combination that beat the All Blacks? I honestly do not know what Lancaster will do - but if I was in his shoes then I would probably stick with the combination they used against Scotland and then use Tuilagi from the bench as he can bring you a bit of impact.
In the forwards, with Ben Morgan potentially out, James Haskell has been good from the bench so he should start against Ireland. But do not gloss over Morgan's likely absence; it would come as a big blow for England as his ball-carrying ability is superb. Similar to the centres - they need to find that balance. Do you throw Billy Vunipola straight in? Not yet. The Irish back-row is very strong, as they showed against Wales, so England need to be mindful of that.
And their opponents Ireland will be flying after their impressive opening round win. Brian O'Driscoll is getting the headlines and rightly so. He is playing some of his best rugby and strangely, he is not as quick as he used to be which is actually working in Ireland's favour. Drico never really used to pass the ball, he used to look for that break and play. But, in contrast, he now looks for the space and the rest of the team bounce off him.
England will not have it easy on Sunday. You look at how England humiliated Ireland at Twickenham last year, especially in the set piece, and that will still be hurting the Irish. I do not think that England will get trounced like they did a few years ago in Dublin, but you have to say that Ireland are favourites going into this game. But if England can perform and get a few lucky bounces then it could go either way - but speculation aside, it is sure to be a great Six Nations encounter.
While England and Ireland are flying, Wales are struggling. I saw some suggestions claiming that Rob Howley could be out of his depth but this is harsh. The side is not that different from the one that won the Grand Slam but they are just low on confidence. They have to look inside themselves and find that extra one per cent and if they re-discover that, then they will start getting some wins.
Another aspect they need to address is their intensity around the breakdown - they were making a lot of turnovers last year and attacking from them but now they seem to congregate around that area which should be a concern. But having said all of that, as an Englishman - it is brilliant.
They will come up against a wounded French side and I expect France to win the match. Their encounters are notoriously high-scoring matches but I doubt we will see that this time around.
And you have to give the Azzurri a lot of credit for their performance against France who they took on through the middle, playing an off-loading game. They also counter-attacked and didn't always take the obvious option and as a team they were several steps ahead of where they have been over the past few seasons.
Italy will now look to go even further and make it two from two in what will be a hard game for Scotland at Murrayfield. Much of Scotland's natural game revolves around forward pressure but they did not really showcase that at Twickenham. They will be hurting from that game but Italy are looking so strong at the moment and I think they might just sneak it.
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Austin Healey is Lead Analyst for ESPN Rugby