England secured an unconvincing victory over Italy in their Six Nations opener but have been backed to take the learnings and press on with their new defensive system against Wales
England’s win over Italy in their Six Nations opener was a case of job done, but there’s still plenty to be worked on.
Whilst Ireland hit the ground running in France on Friday night, recording an iconic victory in Marseille, in Rome less than 24 hours later England saw off the Azzurri with a scoreline that will have done little to strike fear into their opponents.
Coming off the back of a disappointing Six Nations and a World Cup run to the semi-finals which covered up some cracks, England need to show they’ve evolved under Steve Borthwick. They last won the championship in 2020 but have failed to challenge since.
With a new look team, that featured several debutants, England were far from perfect, trailing at half-time before a comeback. Former international turned broadcaster Topsy Ojo insists the lack of time together was always going to result in some teething problems.
He told Mirror Sport : “There’s work to do for sure, they admitted that. There’s going to be some things they need to tweak. Round one of the Six Nations, you’ve not been together that long, they’re trying to find the next level of combinations and tactics.”
England’s learning curve
One introduction to the England game was the blitz defence system, which has been utilised so effectively by world champions South Africa. England have recently hired their defensive coach, Felix Jones, and the Irishman quickly installed it as part of the gameplan.
Whilst impressive when done right and in cohesion, England’s timing was slightly off, which was exploited several times by the Italians. Ojo maintains that the system is hugely effective and is one the team should persevere with, but it was always likely to endure some teething problems.
He said: “As a concept I love it. It is very me, I was always part of a blitz defence, it allows you to be more aggressive. The teams with the best defences, that’s how they operate. Now the learning comes with when you can and can’t do it, those connections. If one of you goes, you all have to go. If you get it right it is a brilliant weapon. I was happy to see it, it would’ve taken a miracle for it to work in week one. Now they’ve got a game under their belt they’ll know what their line speed is like – that’s what they’ll take into Wales.”
New boys make their mark
Several debutants will be hoping they can feature in England’s first Six Nations game at Twickenham. Exeter Chiefs’ star Ethan Roots carried over his club form with a stellar showing in the backrow, earning himself the Player of the Match award in Rome. His club colleague Immanuel Feyi-Waboso also made his debut, as did Fraser Dingwall and Fin Smith.
Tommy Freeman earned his first cap since Eddie Jones’ sacking and assisted Elliot Daly’s try thanks to an excellent running line. Ojo expects him to retain his spot on the wing with Roots also a shoo in
He said on definite selections for the Wales outing: “Ethan Roots absolutely. You come in, play 80 mins, get Player of the Match, you’re everywhere and you kind of show everything you’ve been doing throughout the season. He was very, very good. Tommy Freeman would be the other one. Being allowed to do what he’s been doing at Northampton. Being allowed to get involved, getting his hands on the ball and just looked dangerous.”
George Ford’s experience and quality got him the nod at fly-half with the Sale Sharks fly-half landing 17 of England’s 27 points. Marcus Smith’s injury meant Northampton’s Fin Smith was the other option at 10. Ford’s vote of confidence by no means ends the fly-half debate, but Ojo expects him to retain that role.
“I think it is still up in the air because they are all playing so well,” he said. “I expect George Ford to start again, but if I saw Fin Smith’s name on the team sheet I would be happy with that. He’s had a little taste and he’ll want more, but there’s good competition there.”
Wales on the prowl
England might not have been overly convincing in Rome, but they were considerably better than Wales were in their first-half against Scotland. The Welsh gave themselves a mountain to climb in Cardiff, trailing 27-0 after 43 minutes. Head coach Warren Gatland admitted their first 40 was one of the worst halves of his coaching career.
A James Botham try though began one of the great rescue missions, that fell agonisingly short. Wales ultimately lost by a point despite 26 unanswered points, but they will bring that momentum to south west London, where they’ve not won since 2012. England have enjoyed some narrow wins in recent years and Ojo expects the hosts will want to impress in front of a supporter base whom they’ve had to win back, but Wales pose a major threat.
“I would lean for England because off the back of the World Cup, off the back of a win, going back home they’ll be desperate to perform in front of a home crowd,” he said. “For Wales, if that second-half had gone any different you’d say they are really on the back foot but they’ll take huge confidence from their response. I’d say momentum with England but Wales will come confident.”
Home advantage has proved telling in this fixture over the past decade with the hosts winning on seven occasions, although one of the exceptions came last year when England secured their first win in Cardiff for six years.