Dean Ryan fears for England when they host Wales in the Six Nations clash at Twickenham.
Last Updated: 22/02/12 10:32am
England return to the comforts of Twickenham this weekend after two valuable wins on the road in Edinburgh and Rome, but there is much to fear from the visiting Welsh seeking an early Triple Crown.
It is hard to see where Stuart Lancaster's men will be able to obtain parity and they will have to rely heavily on a vocal Twickenham crowd, their obvious togetherness and Welsh history of stumbling at Twickenham.
Close up analysis illustrates the key areas of concern.
Scrums: This is an area where England have excelled with Alex Corbishiero coming of age with his performance in Rome; they will want to set up a stable platform. Wales have two experienced Lions at their disposal in Gethin Jenkins and Adam Jones - who are both masters in front row dark arts.
Verdict: Expect England to have the edge in the push but the experienced Welsh duo have the edge in the when and how.
Line-outs: Both sides have had their issues with Wales deprived of both Alun Wyn-Jones and Bradley Davies in their early games. Ian Evans and Ryan Jones made a good fist of the basics but were left wanting when asked to find some of the subtleties of unlocking the Jim Hamilton Richie Gray defensive combination.
England have similar issues with Tom Palmer struggling to get the first 40 minutes under control. Seemingly deprived of the option to increase tempo - always a useful line-out weapon - he has struggled to find the early openings.
Verdict: Expect the return of Wyn-Jones to create some much needed stability and take away England's opportunity to cause problems here. I wouldn't be surprised to see Geoff Parling start for England; he's a much more all-rounded line-out man well-schooled at Leicester. Contrary to popular opinion this will make it almost impossible to see the return of Courtney Lawes to the bench as the possibility of both Lawes and Mauritz Botha ending up in the row together leaves England with no caller.
If Parling starts it should be a great head-to-head between him and Wyn-Jones!
Back Row: The key battleground in any game and I'm sorry but England can't hold a torch to this outstanding Welsh trio. Much is made of combinations, in striking the right balance in the makeup of your breakaways and Wales have it spot on. Dan Lydiate is the workhorse, the silent man at six, who goes about making the basics of the game his priority. He is a useful line-out operator but it is his appetite for work that sets him apart. Toby Faletau at eight has it all; the ability to combine raw power with soft hands makes him one to watch as he continues his impressive improvement. He also has the ability to grab a game by the scruff of the neck and turn it in his team's favour. Any watchers of Newport this year will know exactly what I mean. Finally Sam Warburton, Wales' new poster boy, who captures everything that this Welsh team want to be known for. His ability to slow ball at the break down will test England's pre-match sound bites of playing at a higher tempo.
England are still struggling to get this area right and Nick Easter's performance for Quins last weekend was a gentle reminder to Lancaster of what a good old-fashioned No 8 can bring to the party. I expect Ben Morgan to get a run here after an impressive turn off the bench. Chris Robshaw will be left to concentrate on his duties at open side and he will need all his impressive willingness to work to quell Warburton. The final slot I believe will still fall to Tom Croft but questions are being asked of where his Lions form has gone. For me it's an easy answer. We can't ask Croft to be the dominant line-out figure at the front in both defence and attack and still expect him to hit his straps around the far side in the open spaces. Take a look, for example, at England's defensive line-out stats. We don't pinch many so why tie our open space runners down at the front trying?
Verdict: Sadly no contest!!
Half-Backs: There is no hiding from the fact that Wales' rise in form has coincided with the arrival of Rhys Priestland. Prior to this Wales played to a rigid structure that gave them solidity in attack but also was fairly predictable. This was best illustrated with Welsh forwards pounding all the way to the 5m line to allow the back line to reload. Ok in theory, but it also allowed defending teams the same opportunity. Now Priestland's view of things is slightly different and has a tendency to ask for the ball before everybody is in place, forcing Wales to play with a bit less organisation but also against a more disrupted defence. The results are obvious.
Mike Phillips at scrum-half has been an absolute rock and whatever his club problems in Bayonne may be they only seem to have created a more mature player. In games in the past it was always the target of opposition sides to push numbers into the breakdown creating slow ball which would put Phillips' decision-making under the spotlight. More often than not he couldn't resist the physical invite and he would pick the slow ball to come and challenge your fringes. The result is Wales with slow ball and their scum-half on the floor. But recently he seems to be striking the right balance and his role in the last 10 minutes away in Dublin was an illustration of his maturity.
England's combination has not been a comfortable one with Ben Youngs desperately trying to play himself into some sort of form. His problems illustrate how few players we possess in understanding decision-making at half-back in this country and we often see a rise in tempo being the answer to solving the problem. Well it's not, and it is very difficult to see a quick tap-and-go game for 80 minutes as the foundation of any game plan. A number of times people have misinterpreted a scrum-half's ability to come off the bench and raise the tempo when England are behind as a reason to give him the starting shirt. Now I think Lee Dickson will get his opportunity this weekend to start but let's not make the assumption that a fast tap is the answer to England's problems.
If England can strike the right note at No 9 then we might just get a glimpse of what Charlie Hodgson is capable of. He's not everybody's cup of tea to take England forward but nobody can deny that on the front foot he possesses one of the finest flat passing games around.
Verdict: Closer that you think. With nothing to lose we may just see more width to England's attack.
Centres: A clash of the Titans. Well, it might just be if England opt for Manu Tuilagi. Owen Farrell has shown a steely resolve in his goal-kicking which, if Hodgson is to start, will guarantee his berth. That leaves the decision of whether Lancaster begins with Tuilagi at the expense of the impressive Bradley Barritt to provide much needed line breaking ability, or does he stay with the more composed defensive qualities of Barritt. There was no doubting in Leicester's win against Saracens at the weekend that Tuilagi troubles defensive lines but at the same time he looked short of a gallop after so long out and often followed powerful bursts with spells getting his breath back on the edges. Selection in this area will give us an understanding of whether Lancaster is going for broke or containment at the beginning.
Wales duo in Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies are proof that size really does matter! Scotland's inability to stop this pairing from getting over the gain line gave them no chance of dealing with Wales' second wave. Expect Roberts in particular to target the area around Hodgson to get Wales onto the front foot.
Verdict: Again, I'm sorry but I can't see how England get parity in this area even if the selection of Tuilagi evens things up for a while. Wales' conditioning in Poland has given them the ability to keep coming and coming.
Back three: On paper this looks like a "good little 'un versus a good big 'un!" Wales have in George North and Alex Cuthbert wingers in the Jonah Lomu style. Underestimate their ability to provide subtlety at your peril as North illustrated in the slight-of-hand pass to Davies after disposing of McFadden on another bullocking run. Back that up with Leigh Halfpenny's metronomic boot and this looks like a combination that could be together for many years.
England with Ben Foden, Chris Ashton and David Strettle have some of England's most elusive runners who have struggled to impose themselves so far. England will have to strike a much better risk v reward balance if we are to see this trio at their best.
Verdict: Classic cat and mouse and will depend on whether England can create a broken field game to keep things moving.
England v Wales - Away win
Scotland v France - Away win
Ireland v Italy - Home win