If England beat Italy this weekend, they will go level with the great South African side of the late 1990s and New Zealand’s World Cup-winning heroes of 2015, who fell at the 18th hurdle as they put together stunning winning runs that ended in 1998 and 2014 respectively.
England have won their last 16 matches and have won all 23 contests against Italy. With Italy having just shipped over 60 points at home, for the second time in five matches, you’d bet your house on an England victory.
That would leave the Red Rose two wins away from the longest winning run in history, and while the Scotland and Ireland games will be extremely tough, there is a distinct possibility of that happening.
Indeed, with two games on a summer tour at what is likely to be an understrength Argentina, as all their players will be tied into the French league, and no New Zealand or South Africa in their autumn internationals, another unbeaten year is not unforeseeable.
Two years out from England’s previous World Cup triumph, they were not at this stage. In 2000, they had missed out on the grand slam to previously winless Scotland. That same year they’d had an indifferent tour of South Africa. Nowhere near the perfect 2016 that began this side’s journey to Japan.
2001 saw amazing performances in four of their Six Nations games, but they suffered defeat against Ireland to miss out on the grand slam, something they wouldn’t achieve until the year of the World Cup itself.
It all came together in that very World Cup. England won 21 of the 22 games preceding the tournament’s final, with a weakened team being edged out by France in a warm-up game their only defeat. And after they did peak, England crashed and burned and didn’t really recover for eight years.
There are clear differences, though.
This England team are not playing well consistently every week. They are finding a way to win, but against France and Wales they were outplayed. The 2003 side comfortably beat South Africa and France prior to the final in their big games, with a few first half wobbles the only concern against weaker opposition.
This a young team. Dylan Hartley and James Haskell have been around for a while, but they could well make it to the next World Cup and have able replacements to fill in the holes they leave. In terms of youth, take Owen Farrell. He will be 27 by the time the next World Cup comes around, and he will be up to about 75 caps.
Other than Jonny Wilkinson and Mike Tindall, Clive Woodward’s backline was pretty close to the end of the road in their careers, and a huge number of players across the team retired from international rugby soon after.
There is a fear that someone manages to find out the Eddie Jones game plan just as England are in their final preparations for the World Cup. Joe Schmidt’s kicking tactics as Ireland coach were only really found out by Argentina in the last year before the World Cup, but the Pumas put them to the sword in the quarter-final in Cardiff.
But what has been quite interesting about this England side is their tactics change from week to week. They looked to attack with lightning quick ball against Wales, attacking different channels of the field of every phase. Against France, however, they played more conventionally, trying to keep it in the forwards before generating the speed of ball to go wide.
There is no Eddie-ball yet, but if England’s identity does become clearer, they could be threatened.
Jones has been able to enjoy his media conferences so far. He’s yet to be asked the question: “Where did it all go wrong”, and one day, he will have to reflect on that.
His interview after the Japanese were beaten by the French Barbarians in June 2012 was incredible. A cross-armed rant where he accused his players of showing no fight and insulted the captain who sat next to him for nervously laughing.
It’s not a unique example, so it will be interesting to see how the first defeat goes down with him. It will likely come before they play New Zealand and so may well come from a team he expects to beat.
This is a question I can’t answer, but it will be very interesting.
England still have enough young players that their best days seem to be ahead of them. They are on an amazing run but have not found their perfect performance yet. In 2001, under Woodward, they had already put 40 past Ireland, France and Wales respectively, yet improved in the following two years.
England’s game against Italy is arguably the easiest in the Jones era so far, it will be fascinating to see how they play – whether they have to fight for it or coast past the Azzurri.
England are not at their peak, but they are doing very well at the moment.
Nick Powell, Pundit Arena