The last time an English side entered the Six Nations with this much confidence and optimism Martin Johnson had just got his paws on the Webb Ellis trophy and most of York’s undergraduates hadn’t even started shaving yet!
Now Johnson, no longer captain but manager, is hoping for a successful tournament to springboard his team down to Kiwi country for the World cup in a little over six months time. The RFU have set the barometer of ‘success’ as a top two finish, which is too conservative as usual from the Red Rose hierarchy, I mean can you imagine the All Blacks or the Springboks being satisfied with second best?
England have the capabilities and the squad to win this tournament, perhaps with a Grand Slam to boot. That should be the ultimate goal and anything else should be deemed an underachievement. However the Six Nations is the most passionate and physical Rugby tournament in the World and has a habit of making a mockery of expectations and predictions. This year is no different with all the sides evenly matched; many of the results will be on a knife edge.
Nonetheless English optimism is warranted. This time last year English rugby resembled an old, route master bus, badly lacking in dynamism and technical inferior to everything else in the market, just stuttering along with their performances ranging from average to abysmal. Then suddenly a switch was flicked on the summer tour to Australia where a young, new breed of player was thrown in. Dan Cole, Courtney Lawes, Ben Youngs, Chris Ashton and Ben Foden seized their chance with gusto and have transformed the tempo and intensity of England’s performances; shown most clearly in the 35-18 demolition of Australia during the autumn internationals, described by many as the best English performance since World cup glory in 2003.
The pace of attack and use of the ball was a joy to behold after so many years of excruciating mediocrity. But then the Springboks rolled into town and brought England back down with a bump, giving England a good old-fashioned pasting up front and a lesson in how to play smart rugby. If England are to win this year’s Six Nations they need to learn from that defeat, Toby Flood and England’s other key decision makers have to execute a sound territorial game plan, knowing when to play and when to kick. The pack also needs to ensure that despite the side’s more expansive style, the best characteristics of any English side, power, discipline and determination, are not compromised.
England’s fixtures are an also an advantage this year, with three matches Italy, France and Scotland at Twickenham all coming up consecutively for England after the opening fixture of the tournament, Wales at the Millennium stadium on Friday night. It’s an absolutely massive game for both nations, as each feel victory will give them the momentum to mount an assault at the title. As if the game needed more of an edge, the Outspoken Welsh coach, Warren Gatland has been stoking the fires, targeting in particular England’s hooker Dylan Hartley. Johnson has in turn responded with a few jabs of his own, highlighting Wales’ win ratio over the last 12 months and maintaining they are the side under pressure.
Wales undoubtedly have the attacking flair to hurt any side and England need to have their defensive organisation perfect to contain a stellar backline. However it is up front where this game will be won and lost and where injuries have taken their toll for both sides, England are without their two most athletic forwards, Tom Croft and Courtney Lawes; their presence will be missed, especially in the line out.
However the loss for Wales of their Lions props Gethin Jenkins and Adam Jones may be the crucial difference, Wales’s success in recent years has been based on these two gaining parity for the Welsh in the tight, allowing the rest of the side to express themselves. Without these two cornerstones, it is hard to imagine Wales coping with the tight-five strength of England, whose front row will be in wrecking ball mood.
If England overcome Wales in the darkness on Friday, they will be confident of seeing off everyone else. Biggest challengers will be last year’s grand Slam winners France who seem confused and apathetic after a disastrous end to 2010, nonetheless they have a frighteningly talented group of players, and their performance rests very much on squad harmony and confidence.
Scotland and Italy, whilst both on upward curves and both very tough nuts to crack, generally don’t travel well to Twickenham and England should have enough quality to overcome them. Leaving Ireland in Dublin on the last weekend, the Grand Slam winners of ‘09 haven’t progressed since and have been sloppy in the last 12 months or so, but nothing gets the blood pumping like an English side coming over the water. In a very tight game the Irish passion will see them through to a tight victory, ruining England’s chances of a Grand Slam at the death.
Six Nations Fixture List & predictions
Friday 4th February – Wales v England – 7.45pm. England Win
Saturday 5th February – Italy v Ireland – 2.30pm. Ireland Win
Saturday 5th February – France v Scotland – 5pm. France Win
Saturday 12th February – England v Italy – 2.30pm. England Win
Saturday 12th February – Scotland v Wales – 5pm. Scotland Win
Sunday 13th February – Ireland v France – 3pm. France Win
Saturday 26th February – Italy v Wales – 2.30pm. Wales Win
Saturday 26th February – England v France – 5pm. England Win
Sunday 27th February – Scotland v Ireland – 3pm. Scotland Win
Saturday 12th March – Italy v France – 2.30pm. France Win
Saturday 12th March – Wales v Ireland – 5pm. Ireland Win
Sunday 13th March – England v Scotland – 3pm. England WIn
Saturday 19th March – Scotland v Italy – 2.30pm Italy Win
Saturday 19th March – Ireland v England – 5pm Ireland Win
Saturday 19th March – France v Wales – 7.45pm Wales Win