PREVIEW: SIX NATIONS - ENGLAND
SPOTLIGHT ON TEAMS: England come into the 2018 Six Nations bidding to win their third-straight championship, a feat that has not been achieved since France did so in 1988, albeit with Les Bleus sharing the title with Scotland and Wales in two of those three years.
If England were to finish top of the log this year, they would become the first team to win the tournament outright for three-straight years in its 135-year history. No pressure, huh?
Whilst the form of the English clubs individually has been debated ad nauseam in recent weeks, the form of the national team remains strong, with Eddie Jones’ side seeing off Argentina, Australia and Samoa in the autumn, after a successful summer in Argentina, recording a 2-0 series win over the Pumas.
Injuries have robbed England of their two preferred No 8s in Billy Vunipola and Nathan Hughes and wing Elliot Daly, but aside from that, Jones’ regular starting XV looks in decent shape, giving England little to no excuses going into the tournament. Mike Brown and Chris Robshaw are possible fitness concerns for the opener against Italy, but most of England’s injuries have afflicted their bench and/or depth options.
Efficient and versatile lineout – For all the bellyaching that goes on about Dylan Hartley’s inclusion in the England XV, what his presence over the last two and a half seasons has done is create a very clinical lineout. The lineout is such a big part of the game these days, not only for controlling territory and possession, but also for launching strike moves that often lead to tries after a further phase or two. The availability of well-rounded jumpers like Maro Itoje, George Kruis, Courtney Lawes and Nick Isiekwe give England plenty of options at attacking and defensive lineouts.
A plethora of playmakers – Whilst some teams struggle to find one playmaker skilled and composed enough to pull the strings at Test level, England have a cupboard that is overflowing. The partnership of George Ford and Owen Farrell not only takes the pressure off of Ford at 10 to do everything himself, but it also allows for England to split their back line at scrums, always have a proper ball-handler at first receiver in multiple phases and gives them multiple kicking options. There is also dynamic depth, with Alex Lozowski, Henry Slade and apprentice Marcus Smith to call upon if required.
Scrum – It has been a while since England had the kind of dominant scrum that they were once known for. The decision to go with Mako Vunipola over Joe Marler and pick second rows with plenty of value in the loose has been one which has seen England become a more proficient “all-court” team, but at the detriment of their scrummaging ability. It has not cost England yet, but it is clearly a concern for Jones, who has brought in Marc dal Maso to help turn the unit around, as well as the Australian pondering a trip to Georgia, to help fine-tune the set-piece. Both Ireland and France will expect they can get the better of England in this area.
Front-foot ball – With no Vunipola available and Hughes out until at least the later rounds, getting front-foot ball could be an issue for England, who’ve shown that to get the best out of Jonathan Joseph at 13 and their talented back-three, they need to be moving forward. Sam Simmonds and Zach Mercer are capable of providing it, albeit in a different fashion to Vunipola and Hughes, but they are unproven at Test level. The likes of Itoje, Lawes, Hartley and Mako Vunipola are going to have to stand up as carriers in the tight.
Owen Farrell – Perhaps no player is as important to England as Farrell. The growth in his game over the last few years has been remarkable, and he has taken his seat amongst the very best players in the world. Obviously, his kicking at goal and defence will be significant contributors to England over the next two months, but perhaps most importantly will be his ability to read opposition defences and execute ways of cutting them apart as a ball-handler.
Maro Itoje – The onus for more carrying from the England forwards in the absence of their two preferred No 8s is going to fall heavily on Itoje’s shoulders. It’s probably the one area of his game where he is not as prominent as a senior player, as he was when he was playing in the age-grades. If Jones picks three locks and deploys Itoje on the blindside, there’s a good chance he’ll have the freedom to roam a little more and possibly involve himself more as ball-carrier in the open spaces.
Bench – A bit of a cheat, with the bench obviously accounting for eight players, but again, harking back to the lack of Vunipola and Hughes, Jones is going to want to see his pack bust a gut for 50-60 minutes and give England that front-foot ball they crave. A dynamic bench, potentially featuring players like Mercer, Jamie George and Alec Hepburn will go a long way towards winning the constant battle with the gain-line late in the game.
New Talent – Zach Mercer
Mercer has lost the asterisk next to his name on the England team list and is no longer considered an apprentice.
His form has been excellent for Bath and though he lacks the bulk of Vunipola or Hughes, he delivers front-foot ball with the acceleration and power he has, not to mention that he likes to run at space and is always shifting the point of contact, making him a nightmare for defenders to bring down one-on-one.
He will probably have to be patient behind Simmonds, who has been equally impressive in the Premiership and Champions Cup, but he offers a dynamism off the bench that could cause a lot of problems for tired defences.
England may only have two home games this season, but crucially one of those two home games is against Ireland, arguably their biggest challenger for the title. They also entertain Wales at Twickenham, who they are on a three-game win streak against under Jones.
Italy and France away will not be easy fixtures, but based on recent form, they will be games England will be confident about winning. Scotland at Murrayfield will be an interesting contest given their improving fortunes but it is not a place England fear, having not lost there since 2008.
The matches with Ireland and Scotland are dangerous games and could well prevent an English Grand Slam, but with a favourable schedule, a first XV largely unaffected by injury and key players playing well, England look good value to make history and win a third-straight title.