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Six Nations – SIR CLIVE WOODWARD: England can play rugby in the fast lane and run all over Wales

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What a difference a day makes. Or indeed half a day. On Thursday morning England had picked a great team and I was full of optimism for the first Six Nations game in front of a full house at Twickenham since hosting Wales in 2020.

However, by Thursday night the news of Manu Tuilagi’s latest injury broke and at a stroke the team immediately lost its X-factor. You could almost hear the sighs of relief down in Wales.

Many were predicting a close game but I was expecting England to win by 30 points or more.  

England lost their X-factor with news of Manu Tuilagi's latest injury ahead of their Wales clash

England lost their X-factor with news of Manu Tuilagi’s latest injury ahead of their Wales clash

Manu was going to light the touchpaper, but now I am back among those expecting a much closer game — although I am still going with an England win.

Wales often raise their game for England and that win over Scotland will have bolstered their confidence.

They have won two of the last three Championship encounters with England and scored 91 points in the process, so they won’t go easily but my gut instinct tells me England have a big performance brewing.

Why am I so confident? Because England have finally selected a team capable of playing rugby in the fast lane and scoring tries quickly. If they can gain ascendancy they can build a score quickly.

England have finally selected a team capable of playing rugby in the fast lane and scoring tries quickly including Alex Dombrandt (pictured)

England have finally selected a team capable of playing rugby in the fast lane and scoring tries quickly including Alex Dombrandt (pictured)

Harry Randall retained at scrum-half to add even more pace and adventure alongside Marcus Smith, Alex Dombrandt beginning to flex his muscles at No 8, Maro Itoje back at lock and a quick and dynamic front row. It all adds up for me.

There will be hurdles to overcome, not least the rejigging of the midfield after Manu’s injury, and England need to display a positive mindset from the start, not least in combating Wales’ kicking strategy.

I saw some striking statistics in the week, namely that in those last three Championship encounters between the two sides, England were permitted just 15 lineouts, which is normally the amount you would expect per game.

Wales deliberately kicked to keep the ball in play, which was often a trademark tactic during the Warren Gatland years. 

In those three recent games against England, Wales rightly feared the lineout as an attacking launchpad so, with the likes of Dan Biggar and Liam Williams, they backed themselves to win an intelligent kicking game. 

Wales will back themselves to win an intelligent kicking game with the likes of Dan Biggar

Wales will back themselves to win an intelligent kicking game with the likes of Dan Biggar

But, with their dangerous broken-field runners, Wales also backed themselves to choose their moment to switch instantly from kick tennis to full-on counter attack.

I assume England have a plan to counter this should Wales resort to similar tactics today and this is where the game of bluff and counter bluff will be good to watch.

England’s catchers at the back must not be drawn into the game Wales want. Instead of kicking back they should run the ball back with purpose and England are well-equipped to do just that.

Freddie Steward is superb under the high ball and needs to be at his commanding best.  

Freddie Steward is superb under the high ball and needs to be at his commanding best

Freddie Steward is superb under the high ball and needs to be at his commanding best

Jack Nowell is a former full-back and has a safe pair of hands and highly-tuned counter-attacking instincts, while Max Malins is a brilliant all-rounder. All three are well capable of returning the ball with interest if they opt to run.

But England can’t rely just on their back three to counter attack. They must back up their counter-attackers by arriving quickly and in numbers if an attack breaks down.

There could be a huge onus on Tom Curry and possibly Dombrandt as well. Dombrandt doesn’t always look the quickest but he is deceptive, covers the ground well and is adept at supporting team-mates and preventing a turnover. 

England have picked a very mobile side and would profit from as high a ball-in-play time as possible. 

There could be a huge onus on Tom Curry Dombrandt to help England counter attack vs Wales

There could be a huge onus on Tom Curry Dombrandt to help England counter attack vs Wales

They have nothing to fear in that respect and if Wales want to keep the ball in play, England’s attitude should be, “Bring it on!”

What struck me about the French team to play Scotland is that there are no Gallic dramas any more — the names just roll off the tongue.

But that doesn’t mean this afternoon at Murrayfield will be straightforward. Great win over Ireland, the country going mad — it’s weeks like this when complacency can set in, and a very hot reception awaits.

Scotland disappointed me in Cardiff, the intensity and energy from the England game was gone, and they have a fair few injuries to cope with. 

They will be underdogs but that will suit them and I expect a big bounce back.

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