Neil Back is excited by England's progress but concerned about their chances against Wales
Last Updated: 05/03/14 10:39am
The 2014 Six Nations is one of the tightest in recent history and, after three rounds, Ireland, England, France and Wales are locked in a four-way battle at the top of the table.
England and Wales meet this weekend at Twickenham and, after a narrow loss to France in the first round, the hosts are looking for their first Triple Crown since 2001, having seen off Scotland and Ireland.
Defending champions Wales, meanwhile, will head to West London full of confidence after bouncing back from their loss to Ireland with a resounding win over France.
England 2003 World Cup winner Neil Back told skysports.com he is optimistic about the progress the Red Rose have made - but believes Wales are the favourites for Sunday's clash.
"England are now in a good place," he said. "They have learnt some important lessons in this campaign in terms of player changes and tactics.
"However they are still a long way off. They are a good side with potential to be a great side but Wales will be a massive test.
"My heart is hoping that England will win but my head is saying Wales. They have more experience and had that kick up the backside they needed after performing so badly against Ireland. They were impressive against France and will come to Twickenham with a lot of confidence."
Then there are memories of THAT game. A year ago England headed to Cardiff cock-a-hoop after seeing off all-comers and had a Grand Slam firmly in their sights. Even if things did not go to plan, Wales still had to win by seven points if they were to deny England the Six Nations title.
It was not even close. Despite only leading by six points at the break, Wales dominated their visitors at every facet of the game and recorded a record 30-3 win over England.
However, Back believes that loss will help England on Sunday: "England's loss against Wales in Cardiff last year will provide them with a lot of motivation.
"A year is a long time to wait for another shot and a lot of these players have developed and grown into their roles. In my opinion painful losses teach you a lot more than any win, and on Sunday we will see how much they have learnt.
"However a win is not the be-all and end-all for England," added Back, who won 66 caps for England.
"If we can win then fantastic, if we lose by a close margin then fantastic too but if we lose by a big margin then that will be a step backwards. As long as they don't lose by a massive margin like they did last year and have seemed to have closed the gap then it will be a successful day."
England will be without No.8 Billy Vunipola who has been one of their main ball carriers and played a crucial part in getting them over the gain-line with front foot ball. However Back, who knows a thing or two about back-row play, believes that Ben Morgan will be more than a capable replacement and is more interested in who will be on the England bench.
"Vunipola is a big loss but it presents another opportunity for another player to start and show what he can do," he said.
"Ben Morgan has played very well off the bench but I am sure he is relishing the chance to show what he can do from the first whistle.
"It will be interesting to see who Stuart Lancaster goes for on the bench. I think it is the perfect opportunity to have a look at Matt Kvesic. I don't think they will though, but I really think Kvesic is a great prospect.
"He is playing in a struggling Gloucester side and has to overwork. I would love to see him in a side where he just has to do his own role. Perhaps they will take a look at him in the summer and on the tour to New Zealand."
The next step
Back has high praise for what Lancaster has done with England and says the next step is to take England from a good side to a great side.
"Stuart Lancaster has got England back on track - he has re-engaged with the fans which was vital and grounded the players," said Back.
"He took them away from Pennyhill Park to a junior club environment in Leeds which was good. He has also got the nuts and bolts right in terms of standards, team rules and having respect for the jersey.
"Now he has to start working on turning them from a good side to a world-class side. They have changed their attack philosophy dramatically this season, which is important.
"England are on the right path but a long way from the finished article. A lot of people are excited about their prospects at the 2015 world Cup but I think 2015 will come too soon.
"England are not showing the consistency yet. They need to focus on Wales and the final game against Italy and then turn their attention to the tour to New Zealand. That summer tour will be massive for them, a huge learning curve that will really let us know where they are. "
Neil Back was speaking on behalf QBE, the business insurance specialist, supporting community rugby through the QBE Coaching Club. Visit www.QBErugby.com