Neil Back spent his England career hunting outside halves and today warned Wales No10 Dan Biggar to expect a torrid examination of the knee injury that threatened to rule him out of tomorrow’s Twickenham clash.
Wales, the defending Grand Slam champions, have lost their last two Six Nations matches and new coach Wayne Pivac needs Biggar, who injured his right knee against Saracens last Saturday, to provide the tactical experience to move the team around the pitch in an attempt to outsmart Eddie Jones, the England head coach.
There are concerns over Biggar’s true state of health, but Pivac is adamant the 30-year-old will start his 83rd test match two weeks after triggering debate over his arm waving and public displays of dissatisfaction over refereeing decisions in the loss to France and just seven days after being helped off against Saracens in obvious pain after hyperextending his knee.
Instead of being a target for Saracens flanker Ben Earl – the obvious choice to replace the injured Sam Underhill – Jones drafted in Mark Wilson, who is more familiar with blindside or No8 roles to play No7 against the Welsh who have assembled a combative back row of Ross Moriarty, Justin Tipuric and Josh Navidi.
Back is intrigued by this latest twist in the England backrow tale which has dominated debate around the team ever since Billy Vunipola, the Saracens No8, suffered a fourth broken arm and Jones opted to move Tom Curry to No8 rather than give one of the young guns such as Harlequins Alex Dombrandt a chance to break into the team. Back admits criticising Jones’s selection policy is difficult with the team having got back to winning ways against Scotland and Ireland after the early loss to Slam chasing France.
The back row against the Welsh sees Courtney Lawes at No6, Wilson No7 and Curry at No8 and without Underhill there are concerns about the team’s effectiveness at the breakdown. However, all three know that hitting Biggar hard will be a main priority to test the knee out and unsettle the Welsh attacking game plan.
Back, a 2003 World Cup winner, told RugbyPass: “England will understandably target Biggar and you always look at that channel particularly if someone has had an injury with some doubt to see if they are 100 per cent. Biggar does make his tackles but tends to be upright and he will be tested by players such as Manu Tuilagi running at him. Biggar will have to stand up and be confident and his back row will be trying to add protection.
“Wales have lost two on the bounce and lose another one and it is going to be a poor Six Nations and a disappointing one for coach Wayne Pivac. They could and should have won against France although when the French are going well it does bring a bit of joy to everyone.
“When you are winning your selection is justified. Putting Curry in at No8 in the French game I just hoped he got a steady scrum which we largely did but their scrum half ( Antoine Dupont) got in there and disrupted. After three games at No8 Curry is far more used to the position and we have won the last two. When I saw the selection for Wales I smiled, Tom would rather play 7 or 6 but if you look at my era then three flankers ( Back, Lawrence Dallaglio and Richard Hill) worked well.
“I feel for Sam Underhill who has been playing well and Ben Earl will be disappointed. Wilson has played just one game for Sale because of his knee injury and I am assuming he is 100 per cent fit otherwise Eddie would not have picked him.
“We got dismantled in the 2019 World Cup final at scrum time and now Eddie Jones has brought in that Springbok scrum coach ( Matt Proudfoot) to help with that area of the game. All eight England forwards now scrum longer and the back row is not looking to get their heads up because they are moving forward.”
Back’s major concern for England is the decision to go with a six forwards/two backs split on the replacements bench which worked for South Africa at the World Cup. “ If we lost a Ben Youngs and a couple of backs it then becomes interesting,” added Back. “This is game is all about England getting a good start again and if Wales are to get the win they have to match that start and then keep the Twickenham crowd quiet. All the teams have lacked consistency in this championship and I believe England will dominate physically and at gain line and the backs will profit from it. While we can’t underestimate Wales, I expect England to win well.”
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