Next in our set of previews ahead of the Six Nations we examine the prospects of the defending champions, Eddie Jones’ England.
Fresh from a November series which cemented their place as the world number two side, the Red Rose will be looking to make it three Six Nations titles in a row.
Victories over Argentina and Samoa would have been considered a pre-requisite going into the end-of-year games, yet the performances were hardly the most inspiring. However, the 30-6 triumph against Australia displayed all the hallmarks of Jones’ England. While at times it was unconvincing, they were clinical, fitter and ultimately played more intelligently than their Wallaby counterparts.
They have struggled to replicate the form which made them so effective in 2016, though. In the loss against Ireland last year, a defeat which ended their 18-match winning streak, they lacked their usual composure and were seemingly caught up in preventing Johnny Sexton from weaving his magic than actually playing any rugby.
England will remain favourites going into this year’s tournament but they will once again be wary of Ireland, while Scotland at Murrayfield could also be a particularly tricky tie.
Last year: It is fair to say that Jones’ side rarely hit their stride in the 2017 version of the competition. A poor performance against France, where they were rescued by Ben Te’o’s try, was followed by a narrow 21-16 victory over Wales. Although the visitors were much improved in the face of a Welsh team that arguably produced its best display of the year in that game, the Red Rose were perhaps fortunate that Jonathan Davies’ errant clearance allowed Elliot Daly to snatch victory at the Principality Stadium.
England’s lack of fluidity with the ball has sometimes been a weakness under their Australian boss and Italy enhanced those frustrations by exploiting the laws to its fullest and preventing the Twickenham outfit from stringing together phases. They did finally unlock the conundrum, overcoming the Azzurri 36-15, before Jones’ men humiliated Scotland 61-21 in the capital.
That was arguably their best display under their Australian head coach and it was enough to retain their title, but England failed to repeat that effort in the final match of the competition. Ireland dominated and the away team wilted in the face of the hosts’ breakdown pressure, a result which ended their hopes of a second successive Grand Slam.
This year: Expectations are once again high and, despite a few injuries potentially hampering their preparations, they are well set to make another charge at the title. Their performance in Argentina, even without several players because of Lions’ call-ups, showed the squad’s depth, as well as the talent coming through.
The current age-profile of the group is also potentially daunting for the rest of the competition, with the team still having plenty of growth left in them. The only caveat comes in the English clubs’ European performances, with them struggling to match their displays in 2016 and ‘17, but ultimately that should not matter when it comes to the beginning of February.
Key players: It really comes down to the Saracens trio. It is no coincidence that the Londoners’ revival has coincided with Maro Itoje’s return to the side, with the lock playing a crucial role in their rise back up to second in the Premiership table.
Itoje will be vital for England in the upcoming competition while club team-mates Mako Vunipola and Owen Farrell will have plenty of responsibility fall on their shoulders. Added focus will especially be on Vunipola, given the Red Rose’s injury and suspension woes at loosehead, having seen Ellis Genge and Joe Marler ruled out for the start of the Six Nations.
As for Farrell, the fly-half, who has played at centre throughout Jones’ reign, has sometimes struggled defensively, missing tackles he would otherwise be expected to make, so there is pressure for him to shore up that side of his game.
Players to watch: Injuries depending, most of England’s side is pretty settled, with selection quandaries fairly minimal, but there is no doubt that captain Dylan Hartley needs to start justifying his place. His story will be an interesting one to follow throughout the Six Nations, with Jamie George – a couple of inauspicious games apart – continuing the form which saw him called up for the Lions.
Other than that, it will be intriguing to see the clash for the number eight shirt, with Sam Simmonds and Zach Mercer battling it out following the injuries to Billy Vunipola and Nathan Hughes.
Prospects: They will be title challengers once again but there is a sense of vulnerability about the Red Rose this season, particularly with both Vunipola and Hughes injured. The draw is kind for them, however, with Italy away and Wales at home two games they should be winning, but Scotland will be a potential thorn for Jones’ charges.
Should they get through that then the path appears clear. On form, and yes that doesn’t always apply when it comes to France, England will be favourites to claim a Grand Slam. Ireland on the last day will be a mightily tough game but, if Jones’ men are going to be the world number one side, then it is a game they should be winning.
Sunday, February 4 v Italy (Stadio Olimpico)
Saturday, February 10 v Wales (Twickenham)
Saturday, February 24 v Scotland (Murrayfield)
Saturday, March 10 v France (Stade de France)
Saturday, March 17 v Ireland (Twickenham)