Six Nations: Richard Hill sees forward progress from England ahead of Ireland test
By Graeme Mair. Last Updated: 18/02/14 2:35pm
Richard Hill: Paris defeat can benefit England's long-term development
Seeing the bigger picture is not always easy in the middle of a Six Nations campaign where old, often bitter, rivalries are renewed on a weekly basis.
Building a team almost from scratch in this environment, as Stuart Lancaster was tasked with doing when he took charge of England ahead of the 2012 tournament, involves walking a tightrope between development and results.
Two years on and Lancaster and England are approaching the point where promise of better days ahead will start to sound hollow if those words are not backed up by victories.
"In Gordon D'Arcy and Brian O'Driscoll, Ireland have got two back-row forwards wandering around the centres."
Beaten by a late France try in Paris after overturning an early 13-point deficit in their Six Nations opener this season, England responded by mastering tricky conditions - not least an embarrassingly bare pitch - to blank Scotland 20-0 at Murrayfield.
A step back, a step forward. This is a cycle England have been through previously in the professional era.
Clive Woodward's side eventually won a World Cup and earned the coach a knighthood, but the route to that point was far from smooth and included three failures in Grand Slam deciders.
A pillar of Woodward's England team was Richard Hill. He experienced all the ups and downs before the crowning glory in Sydney and also went on three Lions tours during a 76-cap international career that spanned almost a decade.
Hill was always a detail guy during his playing days. A flanker with an exceptional work-rate, he specialised in ensuring quick ball for his team or slowing down the opposition.
So what does Hill - a man who has been there, done it, seen it all - make of England's efforts so far in the Six Nations?
"I've been very encouraged by what we've seen," he said. "If you look at the France game, I came away feeling upbeat. The players came back from what was a very challenging start.
"After that, England worked incredibly hard before half-time and probably felt they could have narrowed the gap a bit more, but came out at the start of the second half and played well, played good rugby.
"There's been a lot said in terms of them being five points up entering the final five minutes and losing, but they are experiences to learn from.
"If you get into those positions more often, eventually it is comfortable. The more you do it, the more instinctive it becomes that all 15 players on the pitch know exactly what they're trying to achieve in the last few minutes."
Ireland are next up for England at Twickenham on Saturday, a match that will go a long way to defining the tournament for both teams.
The Irish arrive on a high and with Grand Slam hopes intact after a 26-3 home victory over defending champions Wales in round two.
Hill remembers the Dublin Six Nations experience well; England lost a Grand Slam there in 2001 but corrected the error two years later with a 42-6 win.
He said: "Ireland do a great job of billing it as more than a rugby match.
"They build it up the week before so the Irish public - who are very passionate - are right behind them."
At Twickenham this weekend, Hill is clear about where the match will be won and lost: "The breakdown. The Irish love to play at a high tempo when they're at the top of their game.
"Just as important it's how they attack your breakdown. They pick their moments opportunely.
"A lot has been said about them not having (injured flanker) Sean O'Brien in the team. But Chris Henry has come in and done well plus, in Gordon D'Arcy and Brian O'Driscoll, they've got two back-row forwards wandering around the centres.
"England will look back at some of the work they did in their preparation for the autumn Test against Australia (a 20-13 win). If they can be shore up things at the breakdown, then they can play."
Hill likes what he has seen from his successors in the England's back row during the Six Nations - Tom Wood, Chris Robshaw and Billy Vunipola.
"Our back row is playing well," he said. "As they play more together, they will get a greater understanding of each other.
"Billy is carrying the ball well and Ben Morgan has accepted the challenge of coming off the bench.
"I would be keen at some point to see both Morgan and Vunipola have a run out together, even if it's just for part of a game, to see how well they play together. Can they function off each other?
"I have no qualms about our back row. The pack is functioning well although it never hurts to have a bit more competition."
Richard Hill was speaking on behalf QBE, the business insurance specialist, supporting community rugby through the QBE Coaching Club. Visit www.QBErugby.com