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England showed their best moves but how will they play in bigger games?

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There was much to admire in England’s attack against Italy although the big backs did show defensive frailties

Joe Cokanasiga and Manu Tuilagi showed off all their power and pace against Italy.
 Joe Cokanasiga and Manu Tuilagi showed off all their power and pace against Italy. Photograph: David Rogers/The RFU Collection via Getty Images

Twickenham seemed strangely subdued on Saturday – that is what happens when 80,000 people already know the outcome before the match – but for those who see the glass half-full it was everything we have wanted to see from England in an attacking sense. Power and pace and the right people on the ball making the right decisions, even if it is a hooker throwing miss‑passes or a tighthead prop threading it in behind the line. For those who see the glass half-empty, however, defensively there were concerns – or if I was involved with one of the Southern Hemisphere sides I would have seen encouraging signs of ways to take advantage.

Even Italy, with the limited amount of ball they had, were able to show that Joe Cokanasiga and Manu Tuilagi can be caught tight in defence. They are big guys, struggle to turn quickly and can stay square so, if they are caught narrow and the opposition have the right people in the right place, there are opportunities to be had. We saw it with Sergio Parisse drifting on Tuilagi’s outside, putting his winger away down the left outside Cokanasiga.

With the ball in hand they are both unbelievable players, capable of doing things others simply cannot, I even saw Joe compared to Jonah Lomu – let’s not get ahead of ourselves – but defensively there are opportunities for opponents to exploit.

That will be a big area for John Mitchell to work on because how Tuilagi and Cokanasiga work together at 13 and 14 is key to the defensive system. Those positions are crucial to every defensive system – 13, out in the wider channels, is one of the hardest places to defend. You look at the greats: Brian O’Driscoll, Conrad Smith – they had an ability to make sure they were in the right place. Especially off set pieces but in phase play as well it is all too easy to get sucked out of the defensive line. You can feel isolated, the picture can change much quicker than closer to the ruck and the more the inside defenders turn in and so do not connect with line-speed the more you want to start diving in to solve the problems

I have talked about England’s power game before but I would not say we saw that against Italy. Yes, they picked a huge backline with Ben Te’o alongside Tuilagi but what I saw was Owen Farrell constantly looking to move the point of attack, Elliot Daly being involved from the word go and England playing expansively. Yes Italy allowed them to, to miss 20+ individual tackles at Test level will make for a long day. Daly is tailor-made for matches like that. Italy were not able to test him aerially and the moment he broke a tackle early on for Jonny May’s try one could tell it was going to be his day. He is a good decision-maker, he can read the game and, if England have those two power runners at 12 and 13, without Henry Slade, Daly is the guy who can organise, link play, feed off what the big guys are doing and look for offloads . He was brilliant.

It was everything we have wanted to see in terms of attacking. Moving the ball, getting Tuilagi and Cokanasiga into the game, Jamie George in wide channels throwing brilliant passes. Brad Shields and George Kruis also had really good games – they did the basics really well – work-rate, physicality, accuracy.

The difference between what we saw on Saturday and the power game that I have talked about is the latter is based on territory and dovetails with the kicking game we have seen employed in England’s previous matches. The biggest question now is whether what we saw against Italy is how England intend to play from here through to the World Cup. I expect them to stick with it against Scotland and then revert to type for the World Cup. No disrespect to Scotland but England will back themselves to score points on Saturday. Scotland are almost the opposite to Wales in that they have forgotten how to win.

The Italy match came at the perfect time for England. They were never going to lose and it presented them with the opportunity to show they can move the ball, especially for those who question whether they have the ability, but I still think England will go with their power game and territorial kicking game to win those big matches against the big teams.

It suits Eddie Jones to do that but they do have the firepower. I would love to see them have a crack in the World Cup warm-up games against Wales and Ireland – Cokanasiga can be their answer to Rieko Ioane or Israel Folau; he can be that X-factor. What may hold England back in the big games is that people tighten up a little bit, those offloads do not quite come off. One-handed passes out the back in a World Cup semi-final take bravery but they also take practice. The All Blacks do it more than most but you have to train for it. It has to be almost autonomous. Whether Jones wants that or not, we’ll see in the World Cup warm-ups.

The most important thing is that whichever way England decide to go, everyone must buy into it. You cannot have half the team looking to kick for territory and the other half looking to move the ball at every opportunity. If everyone is not on the same wavelength it can cause real problems with the fundamentals of the game.

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