February 22, 2012
Can Owen Farrell guide England home against Wales? © Getty Images
This is the weekend where we shall discover whether there is any real substance to Stuart Lancaster's new England. Wales have found life difficult at Twickenham in recent years but they will arrive full of confidence, hell bent on winning a Triple Crown with their eyes very much on a Grand Slam.
We know exactly what to expect. Wales will attack with power and pace from start to finish preferring to keep the ball in hand, looking to exploit any defensive weakness through the mid-field. Then, when they have sucked in the defence they will move the ball wide and look to outflank England.
It is simple, classical modern rugby and Wales have unexpectedly found a group of youngsters - with a few relatively old heads thrown in - who are perfectly suited to play in the style that has made New Zealand World Champions. It is particularly unexpected because of the power element.
Traditionally, Wales have had a skilful side but have always struggled for a platform up front with comparatively lightweight backs using their elusive running to make something of back-foot possession. Now, they are on the front foot most of the time - a really rare experience for Welsh rugby over the decades - and have the option of barging through the barn door as well as picking the lock.
In contrast, we have no idea what to expect from England. Depending on whether you are a 'glass half full' or 'glass half empty' character you can take what you like from their first two matches but, realistically, the jury has now been out for a month.
Surely, there can never have been a situation where there are three serious contenders for the number 10 jersey going into the third match of a Six Nations campaign. It would be very harsh to drop Charlie Hodgson after his match winning contributions to the first two games but he would never have been there had it not been for the injury to Toby Flood - now fit again and recalled to the squad.
However, with Manu Tuilagi also back from in jury, there is the possibility of moving Owen Farrell to fly-half if that was the long-term grand plan in Lancaster's head. Word from the England camp suggests that he will start with the same backs as he selected for the Italy match and will bring Flood and Tuilagi into action later in the game.
By then it may be too late. This is a real test of Lancaster's character. Regular readers will know I believe selection is probably the most important role of the national coach. Martin Johnson got it wrong, partly through a mistaken sense of loyalty, and Lancaster cannot afford to make the same mistake.
England have won two away games on the trot - fact - but should he be happy with those performances? - emphatically no. But for Hodgson's charge down heroics England would almost certainly have lost both games and a totally detached analysis shows that there were very few line breaks or other attacking highlights to point to as evidence that progress is being made.
To be brutal it was the same staid old England. Hodgson was not successful in launching his back division and, steady as they were, Farrell and Brad Barritt do not look as if they can make any impression as attacking runners at this level.
Tuilagi is the one wrecking ball that England have in mid-field and England need to be posing defensive questions for Wales so I have no doubt he will be introduced sooner rather than later. I would have gone for it from the start with Farrell at fly-half and Barritt at inside centre but as Flood will almost certainly be on the bench we might never get to see that combination in this game which is a pity.
Lancaster apparently intends to start with Lee Dickson and Ben Morgan at scrum-half and No. 8 respectively which shows he is prepared to pick on form but we still need to see England showing more adventure and taking the game to the opposition more - after a couple of inconclusive performances Saturday is crunch-time.
I expect a comprehensive victory for Ireland against Italy - although the Italians will take heart from being able to say they should probably have beaten England, Ireland will be too potent behind the scrum and home advantage will also count. Italy would have a better chance if they had a top-notch goal kicker. They are now scoring more tries but desperately need to take advantage of every opportunity offered and their kicking is hit and invariably miss at the moment.
You would have to take France to beat Scotland but I believe this could be much closer than many people might think. France's original schedule suited them perfectly but, having played only one match, a trip to Edinburgh against a fast improving Scotland side could be tricky.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
John Taylor is a former Wales and British & Irish Lions international and currently the managing director of London Welsh
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