England set a high bar

  • By: Frank Malley, Chief Writer, Press Association Sport
  • Last Updated: January 30 2013, 8:00 GMT

The memory of one magical performance and one huge result hangs like a shadow over the 2013 RBS 6 Nations championship.

James Haskell: Part of England's new approach

Can England emulate the talent, power and artistry they demonstrated while beating New Zealand 38-21 in the autumn internationals?

Was that explosion of brilliance against the best team in the world down to a tired All Blacks side who had been laid low with a virus in the days leading up to the match?

Or was it the beginning of an era which could see Stuart Lancaster's England side dominate northern hemisphere competition and punch their weight consistently with the big boys of world rugby?

For England fans the signs are exciting.

Not least in the fact that Lancaster appears to have assembled a squad with strength in depth and a pleasing balance of youth and experience.

Lancaster had no worries in drafting in Joe Launchbury, Tom Youngs, Mako Vunipola and Freddie Burns after they impressed in the autumn, while the inclusion of James Haskell to replace Phil Dowson in the back row and the squad place for Billy Twelvetrees suggests Lancaster's philosophy is based on attack and adventure.

Twelvetrees may not displace the tough-tackling Brad Barritt immediately but the Gloucester centre is just the type Lancaster has been looking for. An inside centre who can pass left and right, one who can kick and carry. Think Jeremy Guscott and you get an idea of what Twelvetrees may offer in the future.

The pressing decision for Lancaster, however, could be who to start in the pivotal number 10 role against Scotland on February 2.

Should he go with the tested but limited Toby Flood? Should he back the nous and goal-kicking reliability of Owen Farrell, an organised fly-half who distributes the ball with aplomb but lacks pace and running incision at the highest level?

Or does he go with Burns, the 22-year-old Gloucester fly-half, once mentored by instinctive former All Black Carlos Spencer, who came on to make his England debut against New Zealand and gave Lancaster a glimpse of what the future could be with a running, side-stepping fly-half of genuine charisma?

It is a welcome dilemma for Lancaster and an intriguing diversion for the Six Nations which is rarely anything other than unpredictable.

One thing is for certain. It is not all about England. They may have had the stand-out result in the autumn and have three of their matches at Twickenham but the pride and ambition which fuels the Six Nations guarantees competitive action.

Wales, under interim head coach Rob Howley, will be looking to halt their underachievement since winning the Grand Slam last season, much of which has been put down to Warren Gatland taking a sabbatical to prepare to coach the British Lions this summer.

The Welsh have not trained on with the progress many expected since their unfortunate defeat in the semi-finals of the 2011 World Cup.

They lost to New Zealand and Australia but also depressingly to Samoa and Argentina in their last matches and are without fly-half Rhys Priestland who is out for the season with an Achilles injury.

Howley has hinted that Dan Biggar could start at number 10 and Wales will face a tricky opening match at the Millennium Stadium against Ireland, who thumped Argentina 46-24 in the autumn.

For Ireland, Jonathan Sexton holds the key. Sexton is the stand-out favourite for the fly-half role for the Lions and will be eager to justify that tag.

Scotland, too, have much to prove following the resignation of Andy Robinson and the appointment of Scott Johnson for the 6 Nations.

The Scots have decent players in dynamic forwards such as Richie Gray and David Denton, and they rarely lack heart and character. Yet they have become the 'whipping boys' of the 6 Nations, the side everyone fancies their chances against.

They picked up the wooden spoon last season and will probably again contest that dubious prize with an Italian team capable of impressive and surprising results on home territory but who do not tend to travel well.

That leaves France and as always it depends on which French team turns up. If it is the one which thumped Australia, Argentina and Samoa in the autumn, with Frederic Michalak back controlling the play and kicking the goals at number 10, then watch out.

Michalak is a class act and if head coach Philippe Saint-Andre can continue to get the best out of him then England versus France at Twickenham on February 23 could hold the key to the championship.

The smart money is on England to adorn their continuing development with a Six Nations title after coming second last time but no-one should put all their mortgage on it.

Therein lies the allure of a tournament which rarely fails to deliver sport at its most compelling.

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