It is less than a week until the 6 Nations gets underway. Wales host Scotland in the tournament opener before Ireland face France in Paris and England take on Italy in Rome. As ever, it promises to be hotly contested. Perhaps even too close to call.
The favourites in the eyes of many of the bookmakers are Ireland. They derailed an English grand slam a year ago with a St. Patrick’s Day-inspired win in Dublin, and with a clean sweep of victories in the autumn as well as a strong season thus far for the Irish provinces has led to pundits and punters alike touting them as potential champions.
Meanwhile, Scotland are being labelled as this year’s dark horses. If their 53-24 demolition of Australia in November is anything to go by then they could be on course for a first title in 19 years.
However, trips to Cardiff and Dublin as well as England at Murrayfield (they haven’t beaten the Auld Enemy in a decade) may well prove too much for them.
Nevertheless, it could be a special year for a Scotland side many believe to be the best in a generation.
However, I can’t look any further than an English grand slam. Despite a raft of injuries, they remain the strongest side in the competition and are worthy of their second place in the world rankings.
There are five primary reasons for my confidence in Eddie Jones’ men.
Experience counts for so much in sport, and Test match rugby is no different.
It speaks volumes that every World Cup-winning side since 1999 has had an aggregate of over 600 caps in their starting XVs.
Like many of the great sides of the past, Jones’ men have a core group of old heads. Dylan Hartley, Chris Robshaw, Mako Vunipola, Ben Youngs, Courtney Lawes, Owen Farrell, Mike Brown and Dan Cole all have a wealth of experience to draw upon.
From Six Nations and World Cup failures between 2012 and 2015 to more recent successes under Jones, many of the England squad know what it takes to be victorious and can draw on their reserves to ensure they don’t fall short this time around.
4. Home advantage vs Ireland and Wales
It has to be said that the fixture list is kind to England this time around. Last year, England came up short in Dublin and relied on one moment of brilliance to sneak victory in Cardiff.
However, this year they host Wales and Ireland and it is likely that this will prove decisive. England have only lost once at home in the Six Nations since 2010. As such a record demonstrates, England are a force to be reckoned with at Twickenham.
Of course, trips to Murrayfield and the Stade de France will not be easy. But the side’s most likely to cause difficulty will be faced with a vociferous home crowd behind the Red Rose.
3. The front five
England have traditionally prided themselves on their set-piece and forward play. From the days of Leicester’s ABC club through to the 2007 World Cup side and on to today. A strong English pack tends to equate to strong English performances.
England’s current front and second row options are impressive. Despite a few injuries in this department, it remains a key area of strength.
Dylan Hartley and Jamie George are two outstanding hookers. Whilst Mako Vunipola, Dan Cole and Joe Marler (when back from suspension) have proven themselves as international pedigree props.
However, where England’s strength really lies is in the second row. Maro Itoje, Courtney Lawes and Joe Launchbury are arguably the three best locks in the European game.
Such quality in the tight five may prove pivotal as the tournament progresses, especially at Murrayfield. Jones will hope that his forwards bully Scotland out of the game and thus restrict the quantity and quality of ball getting out to their destructive backs.
2. Owen Farrell
England have a handful of players who one might categorise as world-class. But for me, no player is as integral to England’s prospects as Owen Farrell. Him remaining fit for the duration of the championship is of paramount importance.
Firstly, he is a world-class goalkicker. If the opposition give away a penalty in their own half then it is almost a guaranteed three points for England. George Ford is simply not as consistent as Farrell from the tee.
Secondly, Farrell is a key defensive organiser. The Saracens ‘Wolfpack’ defensive approach is a major aspect of England’s game and Farrell is central to its execution.
Finally, Farrell is England’s general-in-chief. Whilst Ford adds a much-needed creative spark at fly-half, it is Farrell who provides the game management.
He is an assuring presence outside Ford and his ability to control Test matches will be crucial throughout the tournament.
In short, if England are going to win all five matches, they need Farrell on top of his game.
1. Killer instinct
Winning a grand slam is far from easy. Subsequently, it is close to guaranteed that England will be pushed very close on at least one occasion.
Yet, under Eddie Jones, time and time again, England have demonstrated a killer instinct in the closing minutes of a game. Indeed, a record of 22 wins in 23 matches speaks for itself.
From Ben Te’o and Elliot Daly’s match-winning tries against France and Wales twelve months ago to the ruthless seeing off of Australia back in November, this England side have pedigree at coming out on top when matches go to the wire.
Of course, an England grand slam is by no means guaranteed. One of the joys of sport is that it is rarely predictable.
However, given their experience and quality, and the kindness of the fixture list, you’d be a fool to bet against them.