Owen Farrell continued his impressive international form as he staked his claim to be England’s permanent No10. The young Saracens fly-half has his detractors but answered them wonderfully with a composed kicking display as seven of his eight attempts were on target, while also producing a long looping pass set up Geoff Parling’s try in the corner. Not since the days of Jonny Wilkinson have the England faithful been treated to such a masterful display as he delivered a man-of-the-match performance – but credit must also be shared with Red Rose head coach Stuart Lancaster. Farrell is a steady hand but isn’t blessed with size or pace, but Lancaster has worked around these limitations with the inclusion of Alex Goode and Billy Twelvetrees. Both men can step into a fly-half role and break the line with either ingenuity or sheer power and allows Farrell to concentrate on controlling the pace of the game. Although injuries to the likes of Ben Foden and Manu Tuilagi may have forced Lancaster’s hand, he is now presented with the pleasing dilemma of fitting all of his talented youngsters into his back-line.
While Farrell correctly took the plaudits, it was the debut of centre Billy Twelvetrees that could have greater ramifications for the England team in the long-term. Twelvetrees moved to Gloucester from Leicester last summer in the search for first-team rugby, and it appears to have paid off as he burst onto the international scene in sensational style. He benefited from the absence of Manu Tuilagi and showed he can offer something different to the physical game that the English midfield usually employs. Twelvetrees was in imperious form as he showed a subtlety that betrays his size and stature, and he is much more dynamic than the previous inside centre incumbent, Brad Barritt. With Tuilagi expected to return next weekend against Ireland it looks likely that Barritt will be dropping to the bench as Twelvetrees try-scoring debut creates a selection headache for the English management team. A midfield combination of Twelvetrees and Tuilagi will be one that presents real problems for the opposition as both are strong runners, but the rugby intelligence of Twelvetrees ensures they will not be too one dimensional. A battle between the two youngsters and the legendary Irish pairing of Gordon D’Arcy and Brian O’Driscoll will be compelling, and whoever wins that battle could tilt the tie in their sides favour.
The staging of the Six Nations before any Lions tour always throws up contenders that previously wouldn’t have registered on the average fan’s radar, and Scotland’s full back Stuart Hogg ensured this trend would continue. The home nations are blessed with real depth at No15 with England, Ireland and Wales all having world-class talent, but Hogg laid down a marker that will have the Lions management dying to see more. At 20, Hogg has an exciting future ahead of him regardless of his plans this summer but his performance against England was a joy to behold. He was a breath of fresh air as he showed his senior team-mates how not to be burdened with the pain of previous Six Nations campaigns. Hogg set up the first try with an electric surge upfield as he burst past Mike Brown and left him for dead. The resulting period of play ended with Sean Maitland going over to silence the English crowd. Hogg was a constant menace and fully deserved his own try as he won a foot race with Toby Flood as he sent a grubber down into the corner. If he can create an understanding with giant winger Tim Visser then Scotland will have a genuine threat in their back-line that will unsettle their opposition.
Much has been made of former Scotland coach Jim Telfer’s comments last week after he accused the English of being “arrogant”. However what slipped under the radar was his damning assessment of the lack of depth available to Scotland. He was highly critical at the lack of world-class talent produced north of the border and his fears proved true on Saturday. Scotland’s stand-out player was young full-back Hogg and their only forwards to come out of the game with any credit were Richie Gray and Ryan Grant. If Scotland are to avoid the wooden spoon this year, they need to see more players stand up and be counted. In contrast, England, thanks to Lancaster’s youthful selection policy, seem to have an abundance of talent and as a result their bench was filled with experience. Players such as Dylan Hartley, Flood, Courtney Lawes and Danny Care could easily be part of the starting XV, and with Foden and Tuilagi both missing due to lack of game time and injury, England’s managerial team will be delighted at how they are spoilt for choice. Scotland are in a similar predicament to the one England faced last year with an interim manager currently in charge, and should take note of the way Lancaster has changed the English mentality and culture in a bid to banish the memory of a shambolic 2011 World Cup campaign.
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