With the 6 Nations in just over a month, what lies in store for England?
Article by Andy Barnham
The upcoming 6 Nations kicks off on February 6th in Paris with France against Italy, but those this side of the Channel will be looking north to Edinburgh which hosts this year’s Calcutta Cup. Eddie Jones’ England kick off their campaign against the Auld Enemy and fans will be hoping for a winning start under the new coach. Whilst history is on England’s side, with Scotland’s last win coming at Murrayfield in 2008, nothing will be taken for granted. Scotland’s last gasp loss in the Rugby World Cup showed class and ambition and they will be keen to carry that forward into the 6 Nations and put last year’s Wooden Spoon behind them. Poor teams do the tournament no favours and while the colour and fan base ensure the 6 Nations remains well supported, the traditional arm wrestling matches that often ensue attract only the most fervent of supporters. After such a successful Rugby World Cup, fans will be hoping the free running and try orientated style will push into the 6 Nations and as shown in last year’s final weekend, all the teams have it in them to do so.
With just over a month to go before the championship kicks off Eddie Jones has yet to finalise his coaching team and to announce his squad (expected on 13th Jan). Paul Gustard is the new defensive coach and after his ‘Wolf Pack’ success at Saracens we shall soon see what type of tactics he will employ with the national team. Former Saracen’s player, now turned coach, Steve Borthwick joins as the forwards coach with Ian Peel, former Newcastle Prop, as the scrum coach for the 6 Nations. Peel’s most recent roles with England Under-20s saw Junior World Championship triumphs in 2013 and 2014 and the final in 2015. He also takes up the role of forward’s coach with Saracens to help plug the gap Gustard leaves (current forward’s coach Alex Sanderson moves to defensive coach). This could leave the door open for Jones’ former Japan scrum coach Marc del Maso who’s Parkinson’s Disease is said to be stable and keen to contribute at the highest levels. This setup still requires a back’s coach, with Northampton displeased with an apparent unofficial approach to their current back’s coach Alex King and Jones is said to soon be talking directly to Northampton coach Jim Mallinder to clear the air.
When it comes to the players, things are not quite so clear cut as several proven internationals are suffering with poor form, the majority of them in clubs that have been performing badly this season. Quite whether this is because they are in teams that are doing badly, or because they just are not playing to the levels they are expected is a question Jones and his team will have to answer. There is no guarantee that a great club player will do well on the world stage and it is dangerous to bring in club players from the same club en masse. History has shown that asking such players to adapt to a different environment and system fails. Equally among every ‘unit’ (front row, second row, centre pairing etc) it would be dangerous, and expecting too much, to bring in new players to complete the ‘unit’ without international experience. Due to restrictions imposed on him, Jones can only make 10 changes to Lancaster’s last squad, though given the injuries recently sustained this number may rise. Recent injuries to Jonny May, Alex Corbisiero, Kieran Brookes, Dave Ewers, Ed Slater, Dave Attwood, Henry Slade, and (the still injured) Manu Tuilagi have robbed Jones of almost an entire front row, second row and centre pairing. Indeed many would have loved to have seen Slade line up with Tuilagi, and time now will tell if this pairing ever happens given Tuilagi’s injury woes. With the Saracens influence in the coaching mix, it would not be too far a stretch to see current Saracen, and experienced, centre Brad Barritt fill one of the slots, even if his forte is his defensive, and not attacking, capability. The centre pairing is just one of the conundrums Lancaster never solved, along side the balance of the back row. Current Captain Chris Robshaw is now playing No6 for his club Harlequins and is now carrying the ball more than ever. He is joined in the back row by former England Under-20s Captain Jack Clifford who is currently occupying the club’s No7 berth and is gaining calls for international recognition. Or does the answer lie with Gloucester’s Matt Kvesic? Capped twice on England’s 2013 tour to Argentina he was in England’s 2014 6 Nation squad but was never selected for the match day teams and named by Lancaster as his Man of the Match against the Crusaders in the 2014 tour to New Zealand he again wasn’t named in the full internationals. Like all of the ‘units’ the key to the back row lies in balance between all the positions and the answer lies in the players filling all three of those positions, and not just the No7. However fans will be eager to see an out and out ‘jackal’ after seeing the successful World Cup teams all having at least one scavenger in their starting line ups and indeed fans would be right to ask why England ever deviated from this in the first place.
And what of Fly Half? George Ford’s form, behind a struggling Bath pack, has been patchy at best. Whilst it is never easy to generate forward momentum behind a backwards peddling pack, Bath’s diamond tactics have not progressed and opposition clubs have been successful in neutralising Bath this season. Danny Cipriani has recently extended his contract at Sale and will be hoping for a decent run for England. Consigned to the bench for much of England’s 2015 6 Nations and dropped in the last round of cuts before the World Cup, many feel his treatment by Lancaster was unfair and while a starting place may be a stretch, a opportunity to at least show his skills is long overdue. However at 28 years old and 14 caps to his name, is Cipriani too late? In order to play at the next World Cup in Japan, he needs to be given the caps and opportunity now, which given his kicking success rate of less than 70% may be asking too much. To do so will require him to be picked above incumbent Owen Farrell who, with domestic league leaders Saracens, is performing impeccably. Indeed Saracens are unbeaten in domestic and European games so far this season, the first club to ever achieve this.
Which leaves the question of the captaincy to be considered. Few believe Jones will stay with incumbent Robshaw who isn’t even certain of a starting place in the new look England. Many believe Jones is eyeing Northampton bad boy Dylan Hartley, who has just returned to action after over a month long lay off due to concussion. A former hooker himself, maybe Jones sees something of himself in the abrasive Hartley whose disciplinary record makes for a lengthy read. Will the captaincy add the modicum of restraint that Hartley needs to not be pushed over the edge? Who knows, but the last such gritty player to lead England was Johnson and that didn’t turn out too badly did it? Quite where that puts other contenders for hookers such as Leicester’s Tom Youngs and (yet another) Saracen Jamie George is anyone’s guess for now. One criticism levelled at Lancaster’s England was the lack of leaders and leadership experience with Robshaw doing his best Atlas impression carrying all the responsibility on his shoulders. Previous successful teams have seen a certain amount of squad and captain rotation meaning those teams have been full of leaders and the understanding of what that means.
Man management and knowing your players is essential. Prior to the World Cup many thought New Zealand would wrap Dan Carter up in cotton wool to ensure no harm befall him due to previous injuries. However those in the All Black set up knew that Carter needed playing time to shake off rustiness as opposed to other players that required a break in games to allow their bruised bodies to recover. Jones and his new team need to understand quickly how the players tick, their motivations and which combinations work. That said, this can not be another ‘re-building’ period for England. Fans have heard that phrase since 2003 and it now carries no weight but instead a roll of the eyes and significant lowering of expectations. Squad selection will show the direction Jones wants his England to play, but whatever Jones does from here on out, he needs to ensure the most important thing is correct. And what’s that? The scoreboard at the final whistle.