England has commenced their Six Nations campaign with a 30-17 win over Wales. It was their first victory over the Red Dragons since 2007, and while it was far from pretty, there was enough Johnson-esque hardness upfront to suggest the Red Rose could compete for the title.
England will now travel to the Stadio Flaminio to play against a nation they have never lost against, and then could welcome the reigning champions in front of their Twickenham faithful unbeaten. The French could do England a massive favour by beating Ireland in Paris next week, which would put Martin Johnson’s men in the box seat coming into the third round.
However, one could easily look at the game pessimistically, and call England liars.
After all, the promised gay abandon in attack never really eventuated, with the home team’s backline lacking in fluency and polish.
The expectation on Brive playmaker Riki Flutey to ignite England’s attack when he returns will be immense, with Jonny Wilkinson seemingly unable to spark his outside men.
To be fair to England’s greatest-ever No. 10, it has never really been his forte.
When he was a member of the all-conquering white juggernaut at the turn of the century, he was not required to marshal an open game. He had a precise and intelligent backline and a pack of “white orcs on steroids” that any outside half would pay to have operating in front of him.
Wilkinson will never be a running No. 10 like Dan Carter, but he is still a sniper of the highest order when it comes to striking goals. Although his boot had moments of inconsistency in general play, he was still able to put England in good position when required.
There has been talk that Martin Johnson and his backroom team are not inspiring England to be creative, but in this performance it may be better if he does continue to build the team in his image. The blueprint of England circa 2000 to 2003—which in itself is similar to the all-conquering Leicester Tigers team of that same era—is still a theme which can win England games.
Johnson, his assistant Graham Rowntree, and forwards coach John Wells—with a staggering 1,126 Leicester caps between them—may be accused of being one dimensional, but if England can build on this display and act like either the old England or Tigers in their pomp, then few will begrudge their lack of ingenuity.
At Twickenham against Wales, it was a throwback to those days, with the England pack clad in their commemorative jerseys working as a co-ordinated unit and completing their job descriptions that would have had their grizzled manager and coaches nodding grimly.
The back row and scrumhalf combination was marvellous.
Danny Care and Nick Easter, both familiar with each other’s craft as a Harlequins combination, were superb, ensuring that England had dominance at the ruck.
James Haskell, sometimes guilty of operating as a mercenary, worked in tandem with his fellow bruisers, and were simply too powerful for Wales to effectively counter.
The scrum seemed to operate well enough, but it is impossible to classify the game as an effective litmus test for the front row with two-thirds of Wales British and Irish Lions scratched before the match.
Tim Payne and David Wilson were capable and did hit the rucks, although they do not have the presence England would desire from their props, but Northampton captain and rake Dylan Hartley had a strong game and is probably the best hooker in the country.
In the other set piece, England ruled the air.
Simon Shaw was solid, although one wonders if he will ever make his 36-year-old frame perform with the same intensity he did in the Lions' third test in South Africa last year.
Captain Steve Borthwick was brilliant, showing why he is at the very least in the team. He is a lineout technician and masterminded the dismantling of the Welsh aerial attack. He may not stand in the middle of the scrum and walk the line with the same furrowed intensity of Johnson or the cool brilliance of a John Eales, but showed he is a valuable member of the pack.
Pessimists could again enter the debate saying that if it was not for Alun-Wyn Jones' sinbinning and subsequent 17 points in 10 minutes, England would not have won. But England took their opportunities and converted the pressure they put on Wales into points, with Johnson himself remarking that “these games turn on small issues.”
It still could have come undone, with some James Hook wizardry threatening to crash the party.
Despite the power and intensity, England still could not build effectively on the platform their forwards were building, and this will be something to work on in the coming weeks.
But look at the camaraderie when James Haskell finished off the intercept move or when England won a penalty in the final minutes. There were white jerseys bunched together in unity, and that has been in rare commodity in recent times.
Far from a masterpiece, but the first strokes are beginning to appear.
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