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England must learn from Wales

18th March 2013 09:07

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Humbled: England in Cardiff

Crushed. England were completely and utterly crushed in Cardiff. Nobody expected Saturday's events to unfold in that manner, not even the most confident Welshman.

It was a Welsh performance that will be referenced, heralded and held aloft for years to come, decades even. For those too young to remember the glory years of 1970s, this will be the reference point. There is no escaping a margin of defeat by that size.

The gap on the scoreboard, and a record gap at that, highlights not only where England fell dramatically short, but the class and ability of this Welsh squad that went missing for throughout the majority of 2012.

The message following England's victory over New Zealand last December was that without further success, the scalp would lack meaning. Four wins and burying the hatchet in Dublin certainly felt like a step in that direction, only for that path to now be cut off.

England have not been transformed into a bad side just as they were not a great one after beating the All Blacks - but they have been ruthlessly undressed.

Test experience cannot be bought and when Gethin Jenkins and Adam Jones were starting out with Wales - both were outstanding on Saturday - their English counterparts were barely into their teens. Experience is earned - there are no fast-tracks, just a very bumpy road. Not for some time has an English front-five been taken apart so brutally.

The previous concern that England may peak too early ahead of the 2015 Rugby World Cup can now be discarded. Instead, Wales have landed the first psychological punch ahead of two sides meeting in the group stages.

England's focus will now fall on four areas. The first is the return to fitness of Alex Corbisiero and Ben Morgan. The mathematics of England's back-row have not added up since Morgan was injured against Scotland and his dynamism has been missed. Billy Vunipola, whose brother Mako impressed off the bench in Cardiff, is not far behind.

By adding Morgan or Vunipola into the equation at number eight, the second problem of back-row balance is partially solved. Except now you have Tom Croft, Tom Wood and Chris Robshaw fighting for two places.

The work-rate of Wood - who made 24 tackles against Wales - and Robshaw's leadership puts them ahead of Croft, who would perhaps benefit more from touring Argentina this summer as he continues his comeback rather than midweek games for the Lions. Sam Warburton and Justin Tipuric were electric in Cardiff and England must replicate that.

Thirdly the midfield. England have not been creative enough in this area for some time and with Tuilagi shackled in Cardiff, there was no other spark. Playing on the back foot is never ideal but England were not inventive enough to come up with methods of escape.

Billy Twelvetrees has long been touted as the answer, but is yet to be properly tested. With his defence improved and his greater sense of invention, England have a solution.

Which leaves the back three. Mike Brown will kick himself for letting first Alex Cuthbert and then Justin Tipuric get the better of him down the left hand side. What will be forgotten after the replays of those two tries number into the thousands, along with his tap tackle on George North, is that he has been England's best attacking threat in the championship.

Brown though is not a winger. Alex Goode looked ponderous against Wales when time was not his friend, whereas Leigh Halfpenny never stuttered. England need the direction, speed and awareness that comes from specialist wingers, but it is hard to see whether Chris Ashton will be one of them. No one's flaws have been more exposed in this championship than his.

With the likes of Tuilagi, Owen Farrell, Geoff Parling, Dan Cole, Wood, Robshaw and more away with the Lions later this year, England have a chance to experiment in Argentina.

Christian Wade deserves another turn as does Gloucester flyer Jonny May, whilst Joel Tomkins has shown the right combination of power and handling at Saracens to suggest he can play at Test level. Freddie Burns and Joe Simpson have waited patiently for their turns to establish themselves as England players.

England have two bright prospects at openside flanker in Matt Kvesic and Will Fraser, but the Worcester forward looks and feels like a Test player. Argentina could be the making of him, as it could of Billy Vunipola. With depth worryingly short behind Cole, rising star Henry Thomas has a chance to prove himself.

Wales have shown England the way forward when it comes to recoveries and how to attack, but Lancaster's personnel must be reshuffled.

The result from Cardiff will sting and England will have to stew on it for some time, but the answer is to look forward. If Wales can recover from an eight-game losing streak and emerge as champions five weeks later, then England in time can do the same.

England XV to face Argentina: Mike Brown, Jonny May, Joel Tomkins, Billy Twelvetrees, Christian Wade, Freddie Burns, Joe Simpson, Billy Vunipola, Matt Kvesic, Tom Croft, George Robson, Courtney Lawes, Henry Thomas, Tom Youngs, Mako Vunipola

by Ben Coles
@bencoles_

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