I won’t lie – this doesn’t feel right. Not for a long, long time have I, as an England fan, gone into a series of games in such a confident mood.
Probably not since the glory days of 2003 has there been such a feel-good factor around the most hated rugby nation in the world. To think that just a year ago we were licking our wounds after the humiliation of our own World Cup debacle, and now here we are looking with confidence at a run of games that could lead to an unbeaten year and the promise of more to come.
I remember standing in the Etihad Stadium at the final whistle against Uruguay and hearing a rendition of ‘Swing Low’ echo around the ground. I turned to my companion and said: “we’re winning the grand slam next year”.
There was a real sense of defiance amongst the supporters in the stadium, and right there and then I knew that it was going to get better.
I could not have foreseen what came next, however.
2016 has been nearly the perfect year for England under Eddie Jones. I was sceptical when he was first appointed, but am now more than happy to hold my hand up and say that I was completely wrong. A hard-fought grand slam and a completely unprecedented series win in Australia has brought the feel-good factor back to English rugby, and the best thing is it feels like there’s more to come.
My prediction for the grand slam was made in jest, but let’s be honest; with the squad and talent that England possess it wasn’t too much of a surprise. What was a total shock was the run of victories in Australia. After the first test, I think there was a feeling of revenge gained from the World Cup and a slight hope that maybe we could sneak another test win in the remaining games and take the series. But the players stood up and produced a defensive performance for the ages in the second test and then came out on top in a ding-dong battle in Sydney to clinch the most unexpected of series whitewashes.
So what next? Can England go on and win four more games and secure the perfect response to the horrendous spectacle we endured 13 months ago? On paper you would say yes. Four games at Twickenham and no sign of an All Black hoard coming along to ruin the party seems to point towards England getting the job done. The last few weeks, however, have thrown up so many injuries I’m surprised that England’s main shirt sponsor isn’t BUPA. This is Eddie Jones’ toughest test yet; trying to replace the injured players without breaking the momentum gained so far.
At least we have options. You would think that Joe Launchbury and Courtney Lawes, if fit, will come into the second row. This isn’t a bad couple of players to be playing back up at international level. And the general consensus seems to be that Chris Robshaw will switch to 7 to replace James Haskell, with an out-and-out 6 coming into his place. I’d love to see Robshaw continuing his heroic performances for England this year, in the shirt where we got so much criticism last year.
Among the backs there are more issues to be decided. Presumably Owen Farrell and George Ford will continue their partnership in midfield and, just like in the forwards, the players England can bring in to replace their injured stars on the wings are hardly bad options. Jonny May, Marland Yarde and Semesa Rokoduguni are all excellent replacements; Rokoduguni is in blistering form at the moment and deserves his chance in the team.
I believe that if England can beat South Africa in the first game then that will be such a boost that they will go on and win the remaining three games. A physical, bullying performance will get the Twickenham crowd on their feet and hopefully bring a first win against the Springboks in a decade.
In saying that, the toughest test may come against Argentina; a team that we don’t play very often and continue to improve with every year spent battling the world’s elite.
But England should win, we should complete an unbeaten year and we should definitely go in to 2017 with a great sense of promise, with pride re-established in a shirt that was severely lacking any this time a year ago.
Niall Cook, Pundit Arena