It has been a strange few weeks in the world of Eddie Jones. His squad has been depleted with injuries (Vunipola Bros, Kruis, Robshaw), poor form has dogged some top players (Youngs, Brown) and others haven’t played much (Haskell, Hartley, Marler). He has been compared to Donald Trump – admittedly by a rather overemotional former Scotland coach – and taken a smack in the face from a bathroom incident which makes him look rather heroic. Then he rattles through an interview with the abrasive Brian Moore in record time leaving Brian nonplussed, which I can tell you is some feat. Never a dull moment in his world, and his dry humour shines through, which appeals to the English palate. He knows that too.
England may be the bookies’ favourites to win the Six Nations but it’s not that easily done – Grand Slam again? Only done five times before in the history of the Championship and mostly in the distant past. The last time for England was 1991/1992. I certainly remember, as I was playing! We were also coming off a World Cup disappointment but it was a loss in the final – so more frustration and disappointment than let down. We were relaxed that year and there wasn’t a lot of pressure, unlike for England in 2017; however we were away from home at Murrayfield and the Parc des Princes, in those days incredibly tough venues to visit. Two thumping victories later and we were well set for the Double Grand Slam.
So can England do it with two equally tough away games to handle in Cardiff and Dublin?
A few pointers to their opposition over the tournament….
The loss of Fofana is a grievous blow, given his form and class in the centre. On the positive side I love the new young scrum half Serin from Bordeaux, who could become a star of the future. Big aggressive forwards won’t faze England, not even Picamoles, and the domestic Top 14 competition is reasonably dull, so the Guy Noves offloading game could come unstuck as it’s so unfamiliar to his players, shocking to say. It’s a good opener for England as France don’t really expect to win and a strong first half should seal the deal.
No one is tipping them this year but they have a good fixture list. Italy first up then England at home, and also Ireland. Not sure whether they trust the coaching as their playing style is all over the place, and their fitness and form is suspect. Some great names like North, Halfpenny, Warburton and Roberts seem past their best and young pretenders thin on the ground. Apart from the great Wyn-Jones, the front five look underpowered. Their regions have been underwhelming this year, though the Ospreys are very strong on the rebound from last year. England would be so disappointed to lose to them even away from home, but it could be the one game Wales peak for.
Who knows? They beat SA In November but Zebre and Treviso are in crisis. Conor O’Shea is talented but no miracle worker; it will take time. Parisse will again carry them but for how much longer…? They are the type of team that this England should put 50 points on and Eddie Jones has no respect for them. When asked recently in a public forum he replied, ‘Well they can’t play can they?’ Harsh, but he will demand total ruthlessness on the day.
Jim Telfer made me smile as he delivered his usual pre tournament anti-England rant, invoking medieval rivalries and accusations of arrogance. But perhaps it’s what Scotland need – they seem to have the perfect balance across the team, two strongly performing franchises and a shrewd coach. They really fancy their chances against Ireland first up and rightly so. But where is the hard edge and the ability to close out wins? That is what’s needed after a few seasons of near misses. A strong start and they will approach Twickenham with confidence, but England has had their number for years now, and it is too early for that to change.
They are short of a few top players, crucially Sexton. Their provincial form is outstanding and Schmidt has plenty of choice. The memory of the great All Blacks win is still fresh and optimism is high. Scotland is traditionally an Irish banana skin and the Scots are flying high with expectation. This will be a really tough opener, believe me, and their pace game through the middle will be tested. They could easily slip up, but it would harden them for the rest of the campaign and when England arrive in March it will either be for the big prize or to redeem themselves. We can try to talk it down but the British and Irish Lions team will be based on these two countries. The impatience for this one is already tangible.
Lastly, England look set to play throughout with pace and guile as demanded by Eddie. They remain a team of opportunists if you judge their last 12 months without rose-tinted spectacles. For me they look too vulnerable too often but have got away with it. Time to lay down markers of sustainable quality, fast starts which turn into complete performances driven by a decision making midfield which drives the team – did I really say that? Would be the first time for years. But plenty of battles lie round the corner from eager Celtic challengers who want to knock England off their perch.
Not much changes over the years does it??!
PS An English centre playing on the wing ? Seem to remember starting that trend!