England must seek positives
February 17, 2014
David Wilson should start at tight-head for England © Getty Images
Dan Cole's injury is the stuff of nightmares for Stuart Lancaster. Out of all the positions you would least want an injury in, it is at tight-head. Dan Cole has hardly missed a Test over the last four years and he rarely lets the team down. Other than Robshaw, you would expect Cole to be the first name on the team sheet.
Lancaster must now look to the positives of the situation, which he must have found hard to do when he originally heard the news. While thoughts go to Cole, his injury means they will have to see how the next cab on the rank fares in as big an occasion as they come. It's not ideal but sometimes when the issue is forced, it's the only opportunity you get to assess your options. Adversity can sometimes show a coach what their players are truly made of and I think Lancaster will learn a lot from Saturday's game.
Selection wise, this is as big a choice as Lancaster will have ever made as England coach. Through fate or whatever, this has fallen on Lancaster now and he has to weigh up fitness, youthful exuberance and pick the best player he believes can match Healy on Saturday.
There are two clear choices for just who should replace Cole - Davey Wilson, who has only just come back from injury, or go with Henry Thomas who is still very green. And all against Cian Healy, facing him is tough for anyone who is fully fit.
Games against Ireland are always ferocious © Getty Images
One saving grace for whoever is coming into the team is that they are joining a well-grilled pack of forwards who are settled. As a tight-head prop, I know from experience that coming into a team who are familiar with each other makes a massive difference.
I expect they will go with Wilson despite him having played just 46 minutes for Bath since he came back from injury. For a front-row to get back into the grind, the wrestling and the physicality of the pack, it always used to take me half a dozen games to get match fit regardless of how fit you are off the field. Nothing you do off-field prepares you for the matchday but Davey has the power - he's a tough boy - and the size to keep Healy pinned down but it's the repetition and the consistency that you struggle with when you aren't completely match fit.
If Lancaster takes into account Wilson's lack of fitness and they go for Thomas, it is a big step for the youngster. Thomas has only started nine games this season for Sale so I doubt Ireland would have seen much of him, Healy will have to do some digging around to see what he's like. I wouldn't risk Thomas from the outset but if he's in the camp, you have to feel he is good enough to play in whatever circumstances. If you haven't got confidence in a guy, then there's no point having him in the squad. This is an opportunity for him to show just how good he is.
Chances are, as Wilson is just back from injury, both will get some game time at the weekend. When Davey gets tired of carrying his hay bales around the field - when the well runs dry, it runs dry - Lancaster will turn to Thomas and he should be mindful of how England have managed the loose-head situation.
My predictions for the weekend
Alex Corbisiero is still probably first choice but he has struggled from injury and in his shadow, Joe Marler and Mako Vunipola have come through. I expect Marler to start on Saturday and I have no worries over him facing Mike Ross.
At Quins they have found a good, disciplined agressive quality and Marler seems to be more comfortable in his own shell at the moment. He's stopped fighting the world. He will have a huge job this weekend against Ross but England will need to attack that area and I believe Marler's explosive power will cause them all sorts of difficulty.
The challenge at tight-head may cause Lancaster to assess other areas of his team. I feel it is time to bring George Ford on to the bench. Whatever 'rugby ability' is, Ford has it. If Owen Farrell falls over before the Wales game, then we need someone who has a bit of Test experience to step in and Ford needs to be given a chance as a replacement on Saturday. He has a great all-round game and has an old head on young shoulders.
There's no getting away from it, on paper Cole's injury means Saturday's match is probably advantage Ireland but I suspect this will focus England's minds even more. Discipline will be the difference between victory and defeat for England.
It will be about field position and kicking penalties - Owen Farrell needs to get his eye in. It will also be a battle of territory, at the set piece and getting the percentages right.
It will be simple rugby that will see England home. I've always said it - the bigger the occasion, the higher the pressure and the basics of the game become even more important than usual. If England can do the basics right, things like kick-offs and getting the edge on the scrum, they will win.
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