England recorded a narrow victory over Wales this afternoon in Twickenham to capture the Triple Crown, and they now have one hand and four fingers around the Six Nations title. While they were made sweat at the end of the match, in truth they were full value for their win, having bossed their visitors for the majority of the game.
Just five months on from their World Cup capitulation, things are looking up for the Red Rose. Stuart Lancaster’s departure paved the way for Eddie Jones to come in, and the Australian has brought a complete turnaround.
Jones’ initial squad selection far from impressed fans, and many thought that it was going to be more of the same. Was it a case of a different dictator, but the same tyranny?
Jones rejected wholesale change, and the gift of hindsight tells us that this was a correct and measured move. He has taken his time to bring the likes of Maro Itoje, Jack Clifford and Elliot Daly into the side, but this is to allow a grace period for his system to settle.
The Red Rose have gone back to a traditional English way of playing the game. The back row brings physicality, and lots of it. Billy Vunipola, James Haskell and Chris Robshaw (as a blindside flanker) are not the most technical of breakdown players, but they offer impact in spades. Instead of attacking the ball at the ruck, they attack the gain-line. This pushes teams onto the back foot, and invariably leads to the opposition playmakers being under immense pressure. Just ask Jonathan Sexton about two weeks ago.
To offer the backs even more front foot possession, England have sorted out their scrum. The new regime has targeted this set-piece, as it was a real area of weakness at the World Cup. They now possess probably the strongest scrum in the northern hemisphere. It would appear normal service has resumed.
Jones has also solved the Farrell/Ford conundrum. Under Lancaster, two of England’s most promising youngsters were vying for the one position, and a lack of stability and consistent game-time damaged the two fly-halves and the team as a whole.
In the World Cup, Argentina proved that having two playmakers available can bamboozle the other team’s defence. By placing Farrell at first centre and Ford at 10, England now boast two real options for a defensive line to attack. It adds an extra dynamic, and one which teams have struggled to deal with.
Granted, Ford is not yet the perfect out-half, but he is vastly improving. Put the build-up to Dan Biggar’s try today down to a lack of experience. Ford is growing with the responsibility.
Meanwhile, Farrell is playing the rugby of his career at 12. He has struck up an impressive partnership with Jonathan Joseph in the midfield, in both attack and defence.
It speaks volumes that the returning Manu Tuilagi, who is predicted with merit to be the future of English rugby, is unable to break into the starting XV. The Leicester centre showed his worth today with a last ditch tackle on George North which ultimately secured victory for his side, but he will still need to show more if he is to earn his place in the side.
However, whatever about the back row and centre pairing, the real story of today was Itoje. The 21 year-old showed the world what he is capable of, and be it at lock or at 6, it looks like England have unearthed a gem for the next decade. He was everywhere today, on the ground, in the loose, and picking opposition lineout ball.
Jones stated a few weeks ago that England do not have any world class players. After today’s showing, it is hard to make an argument against placing the young Saracens star in that bracket.
England now travel to Paris next week knowing that a win will give them their first Grand Slam since 2003. 13 years is a long time for a team who were so accustomed to northern hemisphere dominance. This long 13 year wait could finally end at Stade De France next Saturday.
Since Jones has arrived, he has taken a measured approach. While immediate change did not arrive, he prioritised the importance of a smooth transition, and he built upon some of the positives of the Lancaster era. England are on the cusp of a Grand Slam, and are fully deserving of it.
Just a few months ago, many were pondering if the northern hemisphere side are capable of mixing it with the big guns at Japan 2019. In the past few weeks, England have given us the answer.