x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

'Free' England start Six Nations on the right foot

England's 30-17 Six Nations victory against Wales might just prove to be the turning point in the troubled reign of Martin Johnson.

Mark Cueto, centre of England is tackled by Wales' Stephen Jones, right, during their opening Six Nations match.
Mark Cueto, centre of England is tackled by Wales' Stephen Jones, right, during their opening Six Nations match.

It was not the prettiest match Twickenham has witnessed in its 100-year history. But with Princes William and Harry nodding their approval from the stands, England's 30-17 Six Nations victory against Wales might just prove to be the richly entertaining turning point in the troubled reign of Martin Johnson. Sport is all about momentum and in his 15th game in charge Johnson can at last claim to have taken a step forward. A major step, some might say. Much of that had to do with the scampering work of the feisty scrum-half Danny Care who scored a try and provided the crackle and pop which had eluded Johnson's England to date. More had to do with the ubiquitous James Haskell who picked up the man-of-the-match award after scoring his first two tries for England after a performance which suggested that at last the team might have a back-row man to rival Dallaglio and company of old. There was more tempo to England's play, more aggression and cohesion in a pack bolstered by the physical presence of Simon Shaw, and with the World Cup 18 months away that at last is something on which to build. The accusation against Johnson's England was that they had been too sterile. Too cautious to utilise the advantage of their superior resources in both cash and manpower. The coaches, John Wells, Mike Ford and Brian Smith, had failed to supply any cohesive structure in autumn defeats against Australia and New Zealand. This start to the Six Nations was supposed to herald a change in thinking. The shackles were to be released. The players were to be given the chance to determine their fate with more freedom. That was the theory. In practice for the best part of the first half it was same old, same old. England's ball too often was slow and ponderous. But then came the break which lifted the crowd and breathed confidence into England's stuttering game. Scrum-half Care was the initiator, darting away from a maul, feeding Wilkinson who in turn found Ugo Monye on the wing. No matter that Monye was hauled down short, that movement demonstrated England could play off the cuff. Showed they could abandon the clipboard game plan and be creative. It prompted the first rendition of "Swing Low Sweet Chariot" and coincided with the white shirts putting a stranglehold on the Welsh. The final seven or eight minutes of the half were played on the Welsh line. The pressure growing. England's forwards grinding forward by the inch until finally the dam broke and James Haskell peeled off the maul to dive over. It meant England went in at half-time with a 13-3 lead, Wilkinson having kicked two earlier penalties to go with his conversion with Stephen Jones having replied with a penalty. This was what the England fans had been waiting for and three minutes into the second half came further proof that letting the players have their head is the way forward. Again it was Care who was England's creator, cashing in on good work by Borthwick to throw a sidestep and race under the posts. Game over, so the crowd thought. But while Wales are not the force which won the 2008 Grand Slam they are still a dangerous side. A team full of attacking gusto, although the sight of the hairy prop Adam Jones touching down after receiving a pass in the centre position was imaginative even by Welsh standards. It gave them a platform, though. A ledge to hang on to. And gradually they worked their way into the match, James Hook crossing for the try which took them to within three points of England. A nail-biting finale appeared in prospect until Delon Armitage intercepted Stephen Jones' pass and sent Mathew Tait scampering clear to find Haskell with a lovely reverse flicked pass for the touchdown which saw England safe. It was not perfect by any means. But it was richly entertaining. And at the end a wry smile on Johnson's face. The first for what seems like 100 years. * PA Sport