English supporters have had to become all too accustomed to uninspiring performances in the Six Nations during recent years. England have not won the tournament since way back in 2003 and after a series of turgid displays during the autumn internationals few expect Martin Johnson’s men to make much of an impact this time round. The bookmakers suggest a two horse race between reigning Grand Slam Champions Ireland, who were unbeaten throughout 2009, and a France side which recently took a huge scalp by beating New Zealand on their summer tour. Performances in the Heineken Cup bare this out with Northampton the sole English representative in a Quarter Final line up dominated by French clubs and Irish provinces.
Johnson, though, has defiantly labelled this current England squad ‘the best we have had in my time being in charge’ and looking at it on paper it is hard not to agree that England are being somewhat underestimated. The squad has been blighted by injuries in recent times but is now relatively healthy. The losses of Andrew Sheridan and Phil Vickery in the front row are a blow, as is the absence of Tom Croft, but matching opponents up front has never really been England’s problem and a unit boasting the likes of Lewis Moody and the evergreen Simon Shaw should ensure they remain competitive at the set piece and the breakdown.
Conversely, the back play of successive English outfits has been justifiably labelled as negative, the side managing only a solitary try in the autumn series. Favouring the more lumbering, physical approach of players such as Jamie Noon, Mike Tindall and Matt Banahan, England in the past have been all too predictable ball in hand, lacking any sort of ‘X Factor’. Not this time. Johnson has made a major statement of intent by opting for the dynamic running of Matthew Tait at outside centre alongside a genuinely creative inside centre in Riki Flutey.
This partnership, if not so robust, has the ability to unlock any defence and is indicative of a switch towards a more attacking mindset. Finally, speedsters Ugo Monye and Delon Armitage should get plenty of chances to reproduce their dazzling club form having often been starved of possession in limited game plans at international level. For perhaps the first time since the days when amongst others, Will Greenwood and Jason Robinson donned the white shirt, England have at their disposal a backline possessing some genuinely exciting talent.
Importantly, the balance of the line-up appears in tact with the steadying influence of experienced players in key positions, Jonny Wilkinson pulling the strings at fly half and Nick Easter anchoring the scrum. Flutey’s presence makes for an extra kicking option – all-important in today’s game – and takes some of the pressure off Wilkinson. Never lacking for organization or commitment, England appear to have added some guile to go with their traditional grunt.
The fixture list has also been kind to England; two of their away games (against Italy and Scotland) are eminently winnable and playing an out of form and injury struck Wales first up is a blessing. Despite the Welsh having held the upper hand in the fixture in recent years with four wins in the last 5 Six Nations encounters, England should fancy their chances. The 2008 Grand Slam winners also had a lacklustre autumn series and are without Lions stars Gethin Jenkins, Matthew Rees and Mike Phillips. The two tournament favourites will certainly be a step up, but even Brian O’Driscoll and Ireland won’t be relishing a trip to Twickenham if England get some early momentum and let us not forget the last meeting between England and the mercurial French which resulted in a 34-10 drubbing for ‘Les Bleus’.
Whether or not England captain Steve Borthwick lifts the trophy in March, his team should certainly have some say in the destiny of this year’s title. If Johnson maintains this positive attitude and willingness to hand opportunities to flair players and youngsters, the tournament could signal a long awaited turning point in English fortunes and give their supporters plenty to cheer.