SIR CLIVE WOODWARD: England need to put on a show against Italy in their Six Nations clash to end Rugby World Cup pain a year since Eddie Jones’ side were downed by South Africa
- England face Italy in their Six Nations clash aiming to reboot and show quality
- A year has passed since England lost in the World Cup final against South Africa
- Sir Clive Woodward names scrum-half Ben Youngs as one star facing a challenge
It’s a year since England flopped in the World Cup final against South Africa. After a blow like that, you want to respond with something special but the truth is that fans are still waiting for a performance to banish those painful memories.
Following our disappointments at the 1999 World Cup we responded with a strong Six Nations title and a phenomenal win against the Springboks at Bloemfontein in the summer of 2000. That was the first step to winning the 2003 World Cup.
The pandemic has made this a disjointed season but it’s time for a new surge of energy and optimism and for the comparatively new kids on the block to pressurise those in possession. England need to reboot and go again.
A year has passed since England were losers in the Rugby World Cup final against South Africa
Even before lockdown their Six Nations campaign was patchy to say the least. They were poor for most of the game against France in Paris, although a couple of moments of Jonny May brilliance gave the scoreline a veneer of respectability. In very windy conditions the game in Scotland was no thing of beauty.
Victory over Ireland was workmanlike and definitely hinted at better things but that 33-30 win over Wales flattered to deceive. There were some good moments and decent tries but it was also very untidy at times and far from convincing.
So the priority on Saturday in Rome is to produce a high-quality performance. It might bring a Six Nations title but frankly I am not overly bothered with that.
It has been the strangest of years and I am still not sure if England should even be flying to Rome this weekend and Ireland venturing into a locked down Paris. Objectively, the situation involving travelling to games overseas is worse now than it was back in March.
Scrum-half Ben Youngs is one player who needs to be careful in the Six Nations against Italy
It still has that surreal feel. The Autumn Nations Cup with everybody based in Britain and Ireland in their bubbles feels safer but rugby continues to tread a tightrope — as sport does in general.
What I badly want to see is England upping the tempo and playing at a pace Italy can’t match. Looking to the future I want them playing at a pace that nobody can match. I frequently wish for this but rarely do I see it with England. Ireland away last year was a big exception and that World Cup semi-final win over New Zealand. Those performances must become the norm.
All of which will place certain individuals in the limelight. The England pack these days is really mobile and capable of playing at great tempo. The promotion of the athletic Jonny Hill at second row won’t slow them down.
Billy Vunipola must buy into that. Vunipola is as strong as an ox and is a good enough player at No 8 to slow the game down to his pace, but does he benefit England going forward?
Youngs must become a nightmare to play against with Dan Robson (pic) waiting in the wings
It will make no difference against Italy. England will beat them comfortably whatever game-plan they adopt, but can Billy adapt to what is required in future games? Vunipola enjoyed a long run for England in 2019 — Eddie played him in every World Cup warm-up — but I rarely felt he was at his best. He wasn’t the overwhelming physical presence of before.
He can get fitter, and to a certain extent faster, but he will never change his basic physical capabilities that much.
What he can do is employ his excellent skills more. For a big man he has great handling and good vision. He needs to bring those assets into play more. His contribution to a faster game would be as a brilliant linkman, keeping the ball moving quickly, with clever offloads and the like.
If not, it is surely time that the European player of the year Sam Simmonds be introduced to the squad to add that pace off the base of the scrum. Ben Earl, who has a sidestep to kill for, could also come in.
Billy Vunipola carries impressive strength but needs to show what he can offer going forward
Meanwhile, centurion Ben Youngs at scrum-half is another player who must take up the challenge. Youngs has been a great warrior for England over a decade or more and it will be a special moment for him and his family.
With Dan Robson snapping at his heels for selection I want to see the razor-sharp Youngs who used to make searing breaks and take tap-and-go penalties without a second thought. Let’s see that quick delivery and don’t employ the box-kick which slows everything down and gifts the ball to the opposition.
Youngs needs to again become the type of scrum-half who is a complete nightmare to play against, as Robson is right now. Owen Farrell has played little big-time rugby in the last 12 months — apart from the Six Nations — so it’s an important game for the England skipper as well. He is back at No 10, which is his best position, and he needs to get off to a strong start.
He must, however, be careful in the tackle. The world is watching.
He hasn’t played a game in anger since he was rightly red-carded in the Premiership against Wasps early last month, and the temptation when you come back after a long break is to run around like a headless chicken in the early exchanges.
He needs to stay calm and let his abundant ability do the talking. Don’t invite another controversy. Another bad tackle and red card now would begin to seriously blight his career.
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