Six Nations 2014 Preview: England

farrell marler ashton

Home ground: Twickenham, London
Head coach: Stuart Lancaster

Strengths

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.

Weaknesses

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.

Prediction: 2nd

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

25 thoughts on “Six Nations 2014 Preview: England

  1. England’s strength has undoubtedly been the pack and I honestly believe we have the forwards to take anyone on in the Six Nations.

    The issues as you rightly state have been the backs, especially when Manu has been unavailable or not fully fit, as our plan seems to be to hit him up and play off second phase. Burrell can come in and fill this role, but it would also be nice to see the use of the wingers off first phase more, something Ashton did well of Flood when he first burst onto the scene.

    With Care, Farrell and Brown we have an experienced spine running through the backs, but they really need to take ownership. It will be important for Farrell to stand flatter to bring his centers into play and for Brown to command his inexperienced back three, or it could be same old story for England.

  2. I want to see progress after last year’s hiccup. Despite the inexperience at the back, I think England have a chance. It is vital that England win their home games and make Twickenham a fortress ahead of the world cup. If we can pick up 2 away wins it may be enough to take the championship.

  3. I think the biggest decision SL has to make now is who does he start at 9? Dickson is on form, and does the basics much better than Care, but his partnership with Farrell is a bit lacklustre. Care has the experience to be a able to start against France, but he needs to get his decision making process and basics right. I think a combo of Care and Farrell (if Care can curb his over-enthusiasm a bit) could reap the rewards and create better go forward ball for Twelvetrees and co. to exploit.
    I think the rest of the team (apart from maybe the wing options) pick themselves.

  4. Agree with all of that. It’s a big ask to get a win in Paris with such an inexperienced set of backs, however I think we have a significant fitness advantage in the forwards. If we can play fast enough (and forecast looks OK, hopefully pitch will be better than the autumn) then …. well who knows.

    Predict it will be a championship with no Grand Slam winner, England won’t score enough points to take it on points diff, so second seems more realistic.

  5. Weaknesses – I can’t help but think that one of the supposed strengths, the youth coming through, seems to have been a perennial weakness for some time now. I’m not talking about the actual youth – more this idea that the next best thing is coming through and when it does you’ll be sorted. At some point this has to turn into regular 30/40 cap players?

    I suspect I’m only saying what you all know but moving a capped fullback to 9 and not having a clue who’s your best 10 isn’t a good situation a year or so out from a home RWC? That’s ignoring the 18 gazillion centre permutations that everyone seems to go through.

    1. I think most level headed eng fans know in their heart of hearts that 2015 will come too early for this team. We will not have the 600 cap minimum that most experts say we’ll need.

      Not sure we’re alone with out 10 conundrum (Biggar/ Priestland/ Hook). But think Farell is nailed on but the back up is not (though I imagine an emergency call up for Flood would happen if Burns/ Ford or Slave don’t step up).

      I think (though I may be being optimistic) that I detect a settled strategy for our centres. A playmaker (12t, Eastmond, Barritt – don’t laugh he did start as a fly half) and a bosher (Tuilagi, Burrell, Barritt!). I think the Joseph and Trinder fans will be disappointed, though having the likes of May in the backs gives us the option of a plan b when plan a doesn’t work. I think 12t and Manu will be 1st choice when fit but imagine they will try and get some game time for Eastmond and Burrell too.

      1. I think Biggar/Priestland is more a case of who’s THE 10 – they are, and will be right up to and including RWC 2015, the two 10s. They’ll be battling for shirt ownership. This seems fine to me.

        Hook is only a potential 10 in the eyes of the media or mentalists who value 5 mins of craziness over 80 mins of control. I like maverick fly halves but not ones so maverick that they will lose you matches more often than they win them.

        Barrit was a fly half? Oh my lord, I can only imagine what those teams must have been like. It must have been like watching league or perhaps almost american football?

        My concern for England would be the huge amount of reliance on Manu who is still young and therefore has, I reckon, as many poor England performances on his record as good ones? SL’s plan seems to be “it’ll all be ok when Manu is back” but it wasn’t exactly always firing on all cylinders when he was there? Wales have guys we rely on like Dr Roberts but he built that up with years of mostly good performances – we’ve also got Scott Williams developed with a fair few caps (though I’ll concede that is not always through excellent planning, some of it injury forced) and then we’ve got crazy legs Hook who we can bring on when plan A, B and C have failed.

        I’d also give SL a big black mark for persisting with Ashton for too long. He (SL) is clearly to blame for the lack of development there.

        1. I think SL heard you Birghty as if you hadn’t heard Ashton has been dropped! I think that we are starting to see a more settled squad but agree that 2015 is probably too early for anything too spectacular. however, as the core of the squad could all be there for 2019 and all be seasoned pro’s by then we should be in with a great shout!

        2. It seems to me that SL ceded backs selection to Farrell snr who had the following selection criteria:

          1) Northern
          2) Ex league
          3) Play for Saracens

          if you meet all three (Ashton/ Farrell) then you are undropable! Still Ford meets 2 of the above so there is hope!

          1. And if you helped Lancaster win a Churchill Cup or have ever visited Leeds your chances of getting a cap are greatly enhanced as well.

            An ability to play 6 (Lancaster’s old position) or 12 (Farrell’s old position) or 15 (where Catt started out) puts you at a huge advantage (Eastmond even moved to 12 to get noticed!).

            If you believe that offence is that best form of offence, that tries can be scored from means other than chargedowns and turnovers more than 5m out from the try line, then go back to Old Kent Road, this isn’t the team for you.

  6. Feel I must defend Lancaster for the Ashton thing. Yes he’s sucked recently for England. However we are very quick to forget just how damn good he was when he first came through- it wasn’t that long ago. He was breaking records with his strike rate. In a comaprison (putting my tin hat to protect from the backlash here) if George North started to play badly, I am sure Wales would persist with him for a good season or more, waiting for him to come good, because of the memory of how brilliant he can be. And then there was the whole injury thing to Wade and Yarde which granted him a reprieve. Just saying. I get why they persisted with Ashton for so long. He used to be the x-factor we always moan is lacking from the backline. Lydiate is the comparison at the moment (sorry to keep using Welsh players)- player of 2012 and looking nothing like the player he was then. Would they start with Warb and Tipuric if it wasnt for injury? Just think we can forgive coaches for believing in their players every now and again…

    1. Henry, its a very valid point you make.

      Ashton initially had a very successful England track record and allied with very good form for the top team in England, there is logic is persisting with him.

      I strongly suspect that the three newbies have impressed in training, and made the selection fairly easy.

      Not sure whether we have any real idea on who will start – the rumour mill suggests;

      Farrell/May/Twelvetrees/Burrell/Nowell/Brown with Goode/Barritt subbing.

      Personally I would be surprised if Watson wasn’t in the 23, and I still believe they’ll start Barritt at 13.

      I also think that Ford should start on the bench. With Watson/May/Nowell (depending on who doesn’t start).

    2. I can understand the logic, he’s the only England back 3 player with anything like a try scoring habit since Cohen, Robinson and Lewsey.

      The failing is not recognising why he scored lots of tries (i.e. running tracking lines and someone passing him the ball to put him through) and therefore why he is no longer scoring tries (no one to run a line off who will offer him a pass). His try against the ABs was typical Ashton, he runs a line outside Tuilagi, who smashes through and gives him a lovely timed pass to finish. It’s not a scintillating individual try beating defenders with pace and footwork, it’s another finishers try. He’s not lost the ability to do it, but the team don’t play that way, so all we are left with is a finisher with nothing to finish who can’t defend.

      1. Fair point- can see that Lancaster should have realised Ashton would not return to his try scoring habits as we were playing the wrong kind of rugby for his style of play. He certainly profited from having Flood at 10 and Foden at 15. Think Farrell is the wrong kind of player for Ashton full stop- that said he does ok with him at Saracens (but better with Hodgson).

        Perhaps ironic that we may see Ford given a chance at some point during the 6N (certainly dont think the barritt/goode bench will persist- Lancaster perhaps just nervous with so many rookies on the pitch, and giving himself a safe back up option), who by all intents seems the perfect kind of player to bring Ashton back into the game, and Ashton will be chilling back home.

        1. I think you’ll find that Nowell has that same type of tracking ability that proved so successful for Ashton. When I saw him play for Exeter, it would have been hard to confirm what position he was playing as he popped up all over the park.

          Not seen so much of May, but from what I have, he seems to be a reasonable “shoulder supporter”.

          Ashton’s problem is that a lot of this is instinct, and he lost that instinct. In the Autumn internationals you could see him attempting to track the ball but often mis-timed his bursts on, took the wrong line, or dropped the ball.

          The bottom line is that is no-one else’s fault, as I am sure they have had plenty of time together in training, so if he struggles to adapt to a different 10 or different 15, then thats too bad, and at this level, someone else needs to be there.

          1. Don’t actually agree with that. Ashton still definitely has that ability, he does it week in week out for Saracens.

            That’s one of my concerns with Nowell coming in, he actually has a poor strike rate for Exeter, he hasn’t scored a Premiership try this season, and has two tries in 16 games in total for them.

            My worry is he will come in, be under far more scrutiny because he is in and England shirt and inevitably be slated by the media and trolls if he doesn’t score tries.

            May has that ability to beat players, I have no doubt he’ll be ok, same with Watson.

            Nowell is clearly a class act, but we shouldn’t expect bundles of tries from him.

            1. Agree, what I’m sure we won’t see is the “rush and flap” tackle technique.

              Think we are getting a Cueto style winger, some nice runs, looks for work, good under the high ball, beat a few defenders, tackles well, but probably isn’t going to score a try every other game.

            2. I think it is the instinct, not the ability that I would question.

              Tracking the play is very instinctive, and you’re right, he does it very well at Saracens with players he knows well, but this is less instinctive, more familiarity.

              Don’t forget that when he first came into the England team, he was not so familiar with any of the other players bar Ben Foden, not familiar with Flood, Barritt, Tuilagi or anyone else, but his instinct worked well.

              The other thing to consider is that opposition defences at test level worked him out, and defenders tracked his supporting runs, something which domestic teams find harder to do because they are permanently stretched by the Sarries powerful running game.

          2. Main difference with Nowell being that he is very good defender, which is why his selection is less of a gamble. May is there to provide the “X factor”. For me though it is important to mix things up. Bring some hunger and energy into the back. People remember the golden period with selective memory. For some it was always a back three of Robinson, Lewsey and Cohen. Yet from memory SCW used the following:
            Matt Perry
            Jon Sleightholme
            Phil Christopher
            JSD
            Iain Balshaw
            Tim Stimpson
            Dan Luger
            Austin Healey

            There were probably more. All I’m saying is a bit of experimentation is not bad

            1. SCW is a mad scientist, conducting loads of experiments to determine what works and what doesn’t. He had some selection shockers, but he didn’t keep capping them! I remember him picking poor Andy Long in his first game as head coach, who got mullered in the scrum and had to be replaced by Cockerill at half time.

            2. + Lloyd, Hanley, Stephenson, Adebayo and Rees.

              In fact, David Rees, was considered a fixture on the right wing for a while if I recall correctly.

  7. Nowhere near enough love for Brown, find of the Autumn without a question (even though we’ve been playing him out of position for a while). Considering his propensity for beating defenders one could argue that all England need to start looking threatening in the backs is to find a way to unleash him at defences close to the tryline. That would be a foolish thing to argue, but he is really, really good. Ashton’s been sent back to Sarries (hopefully for quite some time) so we get to see if some deeply green wingers have the stuff. From the sounds of it Lancaster has spotted what we all have which is that for the most part the backs did not gel at all well in the Autumn, and is mixing things up substantially now. Good. We know what the old options present (particularly in the case of Ashton and whichever fullback ends up on the wing in any given week), which is nothing. No point trying them again, can’t play the obvious choices of Yarde and Wade, so we see what else is in the box.

    I suspect we’ll lose to France and beat the rest (squeaking Wales in a super-close match that has them complaining for a good long while) and place 2nd, but if it’s a better 2nd than last year I won’t be unhappy.

    1. Brown was world class ….. in his own half. Really want to see him coming into the line as a strike runner or decoy in the opposition half/22. We have to back ourselves to do something constructive with the ball, so he’s not having to stay 30m behind play for a kick return when we give the ball away.

      He’s got an exceptional strike rate for a fullback for Quins and seems to be passing/offloading more this season as well. For England it’s 21 caps and zero tries (and I can’t remember any assists either). It’s crucial we see him creating/finishing this 6N, he’ll be the most or second most experienced back, time to really step up!

    2. I agree with both of you. Yes Brown was our best back BUT all his breaks go to ground and he never looked like scoring or creating a scoring opportunity.

      Consider me a qualified convert. He still has something to prove. For me over the last 5 years (and on his prime) Foden is the best fullback since Robbo.

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