Last up in our set of previews ahead of the 2017 Six Nations, we examine the prospects of defending champions England.
Five years since their last title, and 13 on from their previous Grand Slam, England ran the table in 2016 to kick off the Eddie Jones era on a perfect note, continuing that run with a 3-0 series win in Australia before going unbeaten in the November internationals.
Going through last year unbeaten would have been a wild prediction and England unsurprisingly progressed throughout the year as it went on, although that doesn’t mean they were without flaws. At times their defence proved dangerously leaky, while one of the scrum or lineout would fire but rarely both at the same time.
The overall feeling therefore is that there is much more to come from a young group absorbing their head coach’s ideas with more ease than 12 months ago. Claims that England’s game-plan last was a touch simplistic are not wide of the mark. Perhaps over the next two months their attack will begin to flourish.
Last year: Jones’ first game in charge was a potentially tricky trip to Murrayfield, the exact same first fixture as his predecessor Stuart Lancaster. England came out on top in a 15-9 scrap, scoring two tries to Scotland’s zero through George Kruis and Jack Nowell to retain the Calcutta Cup. England then cruised in Rome against Italy, with Jonathan Joseph scoring a hat-trick in a 40-9 victory.
England’s campaign always seemed set to hinge on their two home matches with Ireland and Wales, and they came away from both with wins. The hosts came from behind thanks to two tries in five minutes from Anthony Watson and Mike Brown to overcome Ireland, before opening up a 25-7 lead against Wales the following week and seemingly cruising until late tries from Taulupe Faletau and Dan Biggar set up a nervy finish, England eventually triumphing by a score of 25-21.
A first Grand Slam since 2003 was then sealed in Paris, as England ran in three tries starting with Danny Care’s opportunistic effort with the boot of Owen Farrell keeping France out of reach late on to seal the title.
This year: All roads seemingly lead to Dublin for a potential Six Nations decider between England, ranked second in the world, and fourth-ranked Ireland. But that doesn’t mean that England will simply cruise through the first four matches.
First up are France, coming off a November where they hinted at signs of progress in their defeats to Australia and New Zealand, although the loss of Wesley Fofana in midfield has diluted their threat ever so slightly. From there England must travel to Wales, where they won well in 2015 on a Friday night but were humbled two years previously when the Grand Slam was on the line.
Home matches then follow against Italy and Scotland, when Jones will hope to build momentum ahead of Dublin, but Scotland are no walkover in Cotter’s final campaign in charge, even if they have not won at Twickenham since 1983. Should England still be unscathed by that point then they will head to Dublin aiming to break New Zealand’s record for the most Test wins in a row, currently 18, with England having 14 dating back to their win over Uruguay at the end of the Rugby World Cup. Facing Ireland in Dublin however will be England’s toughest task so far under Jones.
Key players: Last year’s tournament was a landmark step forward in Owen Farrell’s career, with the Saracens playmaker improving as a distributor but also delivering time and again off the kicking tee when England needed him most. His points will be essential if England are to retain their title.
Maro Itoje is no longer a secret weapon and will need to provide England with the go-forward and work-rate lost with injuries to Chris Robshaw and Billy Vunipola, as he returns to international rugby having missed last November’s Tests. Dylan Hartley meanwhile comes into the Six Nations needing to silence the doubters once again as in 2016, and will need to perform with Jamie George waiting for a chance over his shoulder.
Players to watch: Anthony Watson’s return has been delayed after a hamstring strain during England’s Portugal training camp but one returning back three weapon is Jack Nowell. The closest thing England have to Ben Smith, although not on the same level, Nowell’s all-round skill set and versatility make him a coach’s dream.
Nathan Hughes faces a testing few weeks at the base of England’s scrum as he hopes to replicate Billy Vunipola’s impact, while Jonathan Joseph, excellent in November, feels like the key to taking England’s attack up a step throughout the tournament.
Prospects: Even with that trip to Dublin waiting at the end of a gruelling five matches, England remain favourites with the bookmakers to take the title, albeit narrowly over Ireland. Despite potential banana skins away to Wales and at home to Scotland, everything still seems to rest on that final match, which is why the excitement surrounding Jones and Joe Schmidt going toe-to-toe for the second time has been building since November.
England are already a pretty good side with the potential to become a great one. They have the most depth should injuries strike, with Ireland not far behind, and when combining the confidence gained from winning last year’s Grand Slam and the room for improvement in their defence and the set-piece they are a force to be reckoned with.
To go back-to-back would be some achievement, and they are certainly capable. That last fixture however represents a monumental challenge.
Saturday, February 4 v France (Twickenham)
Saturday, February 11 v Wales (Principality Stadium)
Sunday, February 26 v Italy (Twickenham)
Saturday, March 11 v Scotland (Twickenham)
Saturday, March 18 v Ireland (Aviva Stadium)