The 2011 Six Nations got off to a flying start last night with England's 26-19 win over Wales at the Millennium Stadium. Once the weekend dust settles there will be much to analyze for both teams ahead of their respective games next weekend.
For England, this was the solid start they needed to have any realistic hope of challenging Ireland and defending champions France; a victory in Cardiff was a must. Their performance was far from polished, however. Chris Ashton's two tries show that he is continuing to grow and mature into possibly one of the finest backs England have had in the past twenty years. What is worrying, however, is that there still seems to be the dominant thought of direct forward play, and that at least twice cost England further scores.
The first instance came when Ashton was all alone and unmarked on the near touchline, yet phase after phase of direct running meant that Wales eventually realised the danger, and the opportunity had gone. The second came late on when phase after phase of crash ball was held up by dogged Welsh try line resistance. It's hard to shy away from the fact that Martin Johnson seems to want to play 2003 style rugby at a time when England have a far more potent back line.
The only current question about that back line is the presence of Shontayne Hape. While Ashton has taken to international rugby union like the well-known duck to water, his fellow rugby league convert Hape is struggling. Perhaps most worrying was his simple concession of cheap penalties at the breakdown, something which, as a team, England need to eradicate in weeks to come. With Dan Hipkiss returning to action and soon to be making a move down to Bath, Hape may soon find himself under pressure not just on the international front.
England's worries, though, are minor compared to those of Wales. It's hard to believe that not long ago Wales were sweeping all before them in the Six Nations. Now they are a team without a win in ten months and badly lacking in confidence.
The Welsh international team are in many ways a reflection of their domestic teams. The ability to take the breath away and score a length of the pitch try is forever a danger, yet the ability to put phases together and create passages of possession that lead to a score has disappeared. On at least three occasions in the first half, attacking chances were squandered because of the poor decision to kick instead of run.
Tough away games against Scotland and Italy are up next and, while it might seem harsh or extreme, Wales' best chance of avoiding another poor World Cup may come from writing off this Six Nations and putting the emphasis on clearing their heads and getting back to playing basics.
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