13 from 13: England’s 2016 was perfect. The men in white beat each of the sides ranked third through tenth in the world. It would fair to say they can be considered very serious contenders for this year’s title, and for many a World Cup.
England’s grand slam was considered a great achievement, but against a struggling northern hemisphere, few saw it as a win that made them world beaters.
Heads were turned when they won 3-0 in Australia, before finishing the year with a clean sweep in autumn. England now lie in second, and barring a disaster they will be one of the top seeds for the World Cup draw in May.
They have injuries to counteract though. Billy Vunipola and Chris Robshaw were arguably their most important forwards in the grand slam triumph. They both miss out. England will also be missing Anthony Watson and Manu Tuilagi.
But Eddie Jones has shown that he can handle the problems with England’s immense depth. Some of their finest players missed the autumn, but they won all four games and never look like losing.
Win a grand slam this year and they will break the world record for the most consecutive test wins. New Zealand hold that accolade at present (18), having been stopped by Ireland in Chicago last November.
Ireland will be England’s final challenge too. The Red Rose have a poor record in Dublin, winning there just twice in the Six Nations. And this is the best team Ireland have assembled in years; for some the best of all time.
England have a phenomenal coach in Jones, and a have a winning confidence now. On a 14-match winning streak it is hard to see them losing, and the players will be thinking that too. It’s the big problem they had with Lancaster. They just couldn’t get on a winning run. That seems to be a thing of the past now as they build towards 2019.
Their depth is a real asset. For a five-week tournament, it is vital you have depth and in spite of their injuries England have a top class squad assembled for this tournament. They have strengths in their pack and backline and will be difficult to stop in attack.
England can have real lapses in concentration and their defence is not amazing. They have conceded over 20 points on six occasions under Jones, and conceded three tries to Fiji in that win in autumn. Their rivals’ attacking quality has improved in the last twelve months and they could well suffer if they do take their eye off the ball.
They have a number of players who are still on the road back to fitness as well. Players like James Haskell, Dylan Hartley and George Kruis may get a nasty shock in the early weeks as they look to try and find their feet. Of course if they do go unbeaten until the final round they have to face Ireland. And Youngs, Haskell and Care will not have great memories of the last time that happened.
The Key Men
Owen Farrell is increasingly establishing himself as a world-class player. He will be extremely effective both from the tee and open play. His partnership with George Ford is making England’s backline incredibly organised but very dangerous.
In the forwards it is clearly Maro Itoje. He will probably play in the back row at 6, a position he is likely to take forward to the World Cup. The 22-year-old will make turnovers, countless tackles and will be essential in the lineout too. His name is virtually on a Lions kitbag already, and if he plays half as well if he did in 2016 it will be on a starting shirt.
The Difference Between Success And Failure
For England, their tactics and the recovery of players will matter.
England will need to get their tactics right, particularly against France, Wales and Ireland. That’s not to say that Scotland and Italy will be easy, but the aforementioned trio have styles that can bring out the very worst in England. Last year France exposed the Red Rose’s poor discipline and Wales exposed their defensive lapses.
One feels Ireland have the potential to exploit both areas and tactically get the better of them, especially as England have no defeats to learn from, but, of course, Jones will see that very differently.
England will also hope they can bring the likes of Watson and the Vunipola brothers back for the end of the tournament. They also need to make sure they don’t pick up too many more injuries, especially as the tournament hots up.
Why They’ll Finish As Runners Up And The Implications Of This
Ireland vs England is a hard call. We will see a grand slam decider between these two. As an Englishman, my heart obviously says England, but I think they will lose in Dublin if it is to be decided there. Ireland have more experience, more titles and will inevitably be the underdogs as England will run up bigger scores with their three home games.
Ireland will thrive and England’s winning run will end. That won’t be a bad thing though, they really will learn and it will serve them well for the future.
If they do take the tournament however (which is a strong possibility), they may well have the longest winning run in test rugby.
If it does happen, they won’t have had that big lesson yet, but I doubt they’ll care.
Nick Powell, Pundit Arena