Home ground: Twickenham, London
Head coach: Stuart Lancaster
England’s great strength in the past year has been their pack. The biggest positive to come out of the Autumn Series was a consolidation of a unit that proved itself to be amongst the best in the world – the only shame is that it didn’t get to test itself against the bona fide best, South Africa.
Real strength in depth is starting to appear. Aside from tighthead, scratch the surface and you will find several layers of quality players. In the front row, Lions Mako Vunipola and Tom Youngs could well find themselves starting on the bench, while the youthful hunger of Jamie George and Nathan Catt is starting to knock on the door too.
From the front to the back-row, and the combination of Robshaw and Wood on the flanks is beautifully blended, while at number eight Billy Vunipola will wrestle with Ben Morgan for the starting shirt. In fact, the rudder of the scrum is probably most secure, when you add the impressive Saxons duo of Ewers and Dickinson to the mix. For a frame of reference, Thomas Waldrom, a solid operator but no-one’s long term solution, was capped as recently as a year ago and is now several rungs down the ladder, and Tom Wood should never, ever, wear the eight shirt again.
If it is basic to say England’s strength are their pack, then sadly it could be argued equally as basically that their great weakness are the backs. There was no fluidity in the autumn, when lateral running and poor decision making crippled any attempts at meaningful attacking play.
Chris Ashton is operating on borrowed time and is rumoured to have even been dropped for the France game, despite the other three wingers in the squad having a combined total of one cap – Jonny May’s against a weakened Argentina last summer. Any combination of him with Anthony Watson or Jack Nowell is an exciting one, but the real onus will fall on the men inside them to provide them with decent ball with which to attack.
With that in mind, the combination of Dickson and Farrell patently did not work, offering no running threat and allowing defences to concentrate elsewhere. Both are good players in their own right, but a symptom of England’s backline issues has been to pick combinations that do not work – replace Dickson and Farrell with Twelvetrees and Tomkins, Barritt and Tuilagi, etc.
Hope emerges from the darkness, however, in the shape of promising youngsters like George Ford, Kyle Eastmond, Luther Burrell, Jack Nowell and Anthony Watson. Any one of those names taking to the field should provide a shot of creativity and endeavour into the arm of England’s attack – but with so little experience, are they ready to be thrown into action at the Stade de France?
Player to watch: Luther Burrell
Burrell has been making waves this season and last for Northampton, so his likely inclusion against France on Saturday comes as no surprise. Powerful and pacy, it will be intriguing to see if his excellent club form can be translated to the more frenzied arena of international rugby, where opposition back rows are hungrier and time and space are far more limited.
While he is known for his ball-carrying, he does actually possess a deftness of distribution that could catch opposing defences unawares, and if he lines up at 13, as expected, this will hopefully bring a potentially exhilarating back three into the game more than they have been in recent times.
Last season: 2nd
After an encouraging opening game against Scotland, in which the ball was moved around encouragingly and England scored some excellent tries, normal service was resumed in the weeks that followed as turgid wins over Ireland, France and Italy set up a winner-takes-all clash with Wales at the Millennium Stadium on the final weekend.
What followed has been spoken about plenty and will be even more when 9th March rolls around, but for all the talk of revenge England will simply want to put in a better performance after being so far below par that day one struggles to remember that going into the game they actually had a chance of claiming a Grand Slam.
Much rides on the first weekend of this Six Nations championship for England. Negotiate the Stade de France with what is set to be a hugely young team, and with Wales and Ireland to come at home they will be in a superb position to challenge for the title. With that undercurrent of inexperience, however, against a France team that is set to be better prepared than ever before, having had the weekend off in camp, that could be a step too far.
The youngsters will come good and, hopefully, England will play some much better rugby this championship, but if Wales can avoid too many injuries they look stronger on paper. England will be competitive though, and whatever happens in the opening few rounds, 9th March at Twickenham is not one to miss.
By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images