In contrast to twelve months ago, England head into this year’s Six Nations off the back of a loss against the All Blacks, but after winning 80% of their matches in 2013, lock Joe Launchbury is adamant that the side is heading in the right direction, just seventeen months away from the 2015 Rugby World Cup.
“We were disappointed not to win against New Zealand but we performed well and improved during the autumn series. We’ve had lots of tough challenges and we are still a relatively young squad, gaining experience. The proof will really be in how we do in these upcoming games. It starts with France on Saturday.”
England have not played France in an opening Six Nations fixture since 2003, the last time an England side won a Grand Slam, and “Le Crunch” is always one of the most anticipated matches of any Six Nations Championship.
“I’ve seen loads of England games in Paris on TV but being at the Stade de France will be a completely different experience. It’s all part of the Six Nations package and what makes it such a great tournament. I’m excited about playing these away games. I haven’t played away as much as at Twickenham but our first two games [the second is in Edinburgh against Scotland] are a tough way to start.“
Launchbury has become a key player for England since making his debut off the bench against Fiji at HQ in 2012. Unlucky to miss out on Lions selection last year – at twenty two years of age his time will come – the Wasps star has made the number four shirt his own, starting twelve consecutive matches, and England’s other locks are seemingly fighting it out for the other spot in the second row. He does not see it that way though and is quick to praise some of England’s other giants for helping him settle into the England squad environment.
“Geoff (Parling) and Courtney (Lawes) have been good to me since I was first brought into camp and they’re both great players. This season there are several English second rows playing extremely well for their clubs. We’re very much on our toes at the moment selection wise and no one in the squad is taking their place for granted”.
Whilst England’s pack has gone from strength to strength since the last World Cup, injuries and uncertainty over certain back line combinations mean that out wide England are far less settled.
However, with some hugely encouraging displays from Luther Burrell, Anthony Watson, Jonny May and Jack Nowell in the Aviva Premiership and in European fixtures, England’s backline in the Six Nations could include some of the most exciting attacking young players in northern hemisphere rugby at the moment. With Chris Ashton being dropped for the match in Paris and Marland Yarde, Christian Wade and Ben Foden out injured, there are two vacancies on England’s wings.
Launchbury has certainly been impressed and believes England fans can be very excited about the talent emerging behind England’s scrum.
“They’ve trained really well and Stuart was quick to emphasise how well they’ve been playing for their clubs. We have some injuries but that only leaves the open the door for other players and gives us the opportunity to grow in depth for the next few years”.
France have had their own injury setbacks, with their captain and 2011 IRB player of the year, Thierry Dusautoir, being ruled out of the whole 2014 Six Nations after sustaining a serious bicep injury in a recent Heineken Cup match.
“He’s a stand out player in everything they do but they have buckets of experience in their pack and across their back line with lots of leaders ready to step in for him.”
England have been consistent in the Six Nations under Stuart Lancaster, with another 80% win record in 2012 and 2013, but by the end of the last two campaigns they have looked second best to Wales, who are now targeting a record third consecutive Six Nations title. The side clearly holds ambitions of emulating the current Welsh crop of players in winning Championship titles and Grand Slams but Launchbury is keeping his feet firmly on the ground. His sole focus at present is on the match against France.
“Winning titles is undoubtedly a big motivator but the old cliché of taking one game at a time can’t be any more accurate when you have such a big challenge like we do this weekend.“
In rugby’s professional era France have won the Five/Six Nations title the year after each Lions tour. England will not take too much notice of this. If the rest of the squad is as composed as Launchbury appears, they can be quietly confident heading into Saturday’s evening encounter in Saint-Denis against Phillipe Saint-André’s team.
Get the latest behind-the-scenes news from Joe Launchbury and his England teammates with O2 Inside Line, the weekly show from O2 – proud sponsor of England Rugby – and the RFU, at www.O2InsideLine.com