Leapfrogging Liffey seems less daunting now
England 38 Scotland 18:As numerous former England coaches will tell you, victory on the opening Six Nations weekend is not a guaranteed passport to a green and pleasant land. Six years ago, for example, Brian Ashton’s England beat Scotland 42-20 at Twickenham in February, with Jonny Wilkinson enjoying a field day, and headed for Dublin in confident mood. They were duly thrashed 43-13 by Ireland at Croke Park, after which Ashton famously described the visiting dressing-room as “like being in a mortuary”.
Two years ago, similarly, Martin Johnson’s team arrived at the Aviva Stadium seeking a first grand slam since 2003. They, too, were swept away 24-8, undone by a ferocious Irish forward effort, a degree of complacency and their own shaky discipline. As Stuart Lancaster prepares to fly his squad across the Irish Sea, he is well aware the hosts enjoy reserving their best performances for the English.
For those such as Ben Youngs, who remain scarred by that chastening previous experience, there will be no shortage of motivation to get it right this time. Ireland’s consistent ability to slow down play and defend stoutly will make it a different sort of contest but there were enough positive signs, not least the stream of quick ball England have been generating, to suggest the visitors will prove more competitive this Sunday. Any international team which can score 38 points in successive games is clearly doing something right.
Lancaster, though, has a genuine selection dilemma. Manu Tuilagi is on his way back and, assuming his ankle does not flare up again, he will be restored to the starting XV which means someone has to make way. Brad Barritt’s defensive qualities and unselfish character make him a desperately hard man to discard but Billy Twelvetrees’s debut on Saturday was a revelation.
It was not just a matter of the intelligence, try-scoring power and dexterity he brought to the midfield. With another playmaking option available outside him, Owen Farrell hit new heights at outhalf, enjoying his best game for England with ball in hand in addition to the flawless goal-kicking which brought him 18 points.
Twelvetrees, like Farrell, also has an enviable big-match temperament, cutting through the rough environment of international rugby like a seasoned lumberjack. He used to play alongside Tuilagi at Leicester and there is already a sense the Gloucester centre, like Joe Launchbury up front, offers England a different dimension.
No one has yet mentioned Twelvetrees as a Lions possible but at this rate he could be a contender. Then again, Barritt and Tuilagi were good enough to beat the All Blacks. If Ireland were bound for London there might be an argument for playing Tuilagi on the left wing but picking two specialist full-backs in Dublin when it is raining wintry garryowens has a less risky feel to it.
There are other crucial calls to make, with both Youngs under pressure. Leaving aside Ben’s Dublin nightmare last time, when the scrumhalf was yellow-carded for deliberately throwing the ball into the crowd, there are still times when England would benefit from smarter option-taking around the base.
At hooker Tom Youngs had a mixed day against the Scots, costing his side a try by Launchbury with a high tackle spotted by a touch judge. Dylan Hartley is breathing down his rival’s neck, with Lancaster not expecting to start the same XV for the entire championship. “During the course of the Six Nations a lot of players will get experience, either from the bench or starting,” he said.
Give or take a little more precision – “We’re a little frustrated we didn’t put one or two more tries away,” said Lancaster – there is also no question England are gathering real momentum. Scotland’s early try by Sean Maitland gave the contest a little nip but, with almost 70 per cent of the game taking place in the visitors’ half, the outcome was rarely in doubt. Geoff Parling richly deserved his first try for England, Chris Ashton and Twelvetrees both showed predatory instincts close to the line and the captain, Chris Robshaw, is displaying increasing confidence.
England’s next trick will be to leapfrog the Liffey with a performance of even more intent and intelligence. Beat the Irish and Lancaster’s increasingly exciting, upbeat project will be well and truly green-lit.