Watching England is becoming a seat-of-the-pants exercise. Take your seat just a little late at Twickenham or in front of the TV on Sunday, and you risk missing a try. Never mind the scrum’s dark arts, Owen Farrell’s team are currently the masters of the fast start, as they get set for round two of the Six Nations, at home to France.
In each of their last four Tests, England have bagged a try inside the first three minutes. They did it in a mere 92 seconds in Ireland a week ago, with a gutsy line-out thrown to Manu Tuilagi in the midfield, a few super-sharp recycles at the ruck and a finish by the predatory Jonny May. It set the tone and the pace for a dominant 80 minutes, and a superb 32-20 win. In the autumn, New Zealand, Japan and Australia were similarly hit hard and early on successive Saturdays at Twickenham. Top-class opposition are finding Farrell’s men have no interest in playing themselves gently into a game.
“Everybody wants to start the game well and we’re no different,” Farrell said yesterday, naturally enough. But with his pre-match toss of the coin for kick-off now assuming greater significance given England’s success at making an initial position in opposition territory count heavily, the captain expanded on the theme.
“There were a lot of times last year when we started really well and were unable to keep it up or not able to withstand the pressure that got put back on us,” said Farrell, thinking no doubt of the loss to New Zealand after Chris Ashton’s quickfire try, as well as, in a looser sense, a win over Wales and losses on tour in South Africa when England posted points in the first quarter but tailed off later. “The most pleasing thing from the last however-many games is that we’ve kept engaged, we’ve kept ready for anything and stayed in the fight throughout the game.”
England’s head coach Eddie Jones is predicting wind and rain as a team beefed up in scrummaging proficiency by the recall of Dan Cole and Ben Moon to the bench attempt to build on their four-try, bonus-point opener. Ashton is back in the run-on XV after his autumn Tests were truncated by injury, with Jones saying: “We’ve just got a gut feeling he’ll be right for the start of the game and Jack [Nowell, who drops to the bench] will be right for the end of the game.”
Jones, you will know by now, does not subscribe to the traditional concept of a team and its substitutes.
In his view, there are 23 players and it is just the pesky laws that oblige him to field 15 of them before the rest. It could mean Ashton knows he has, say, 55 minutes to do his stuff before he gets hooked and Nowell is unleashed.
“I like to see the opportunity before it happens,” Ashton said of the instinct that has carried him to tryscoring records in the European Cup and the French league, and made him England’s top scorer currently active, with 20 tries in 43 Tests. “I think all the wingers have different strengths,” said Ashton. “I’m very different from Jack who likes the tight areas and has strong defence, and is a strong carrier. My strengths are a bit more attacking out wide and my support play.”
It indicates an increased willingness to attack early by England, backing themselves to use skill to outflank the returning centre behemoth Mathieu Bastareaud in a France team showing six changes from the one who gave up a 16-0 half-time lead against Wales in Paris last weekend to lose 24-19.
Courtney Lawes for the injured Maro Itoje is a change for England that maintains pace and oomph in the broken field.
The French half-back hinge of Morgan Parra and Camille Lopez has quality but they alone cannot stitch together the now customary mix-and-match pack.