It’s difficult to know which way Martin Johnson’s England will go in this year’s RBS Six Nations – losing to Italy in Rome is a distinct possibility, but beating Wales and Ireland at Twickenham is also a possibility. Jonny McLeod gives us his views.
England’s lineout was one of the few positives from the autumn series. Despite being much maligned for his ineffectiveness around the park, Captain Borthwick is a strong lineout organiser and operator. With Tom Croft injured and Johnson refusing to promote Nick Kennedy, the England captain will be central to England’s supply line.
Jonny Wilkinson is once again certain to start at number 10, and his accuracy in front of goal will be a massive advantage for Martin Johnson’s men. If England stick to their game plan from the autumn and tries remain scarce, his points from the boot will be vital. In such circumstances it could be argued that his selection ahead of his rivals Danny Cipriani and Shane Geraghty is legitimate if unexciting.
The return of Riki Flutey from injury cannot be underestimated. The Brive inside centre was England’s best player last season despite only playing half a season. His combination of physical aggression, hot-stepping, handling skills and vision makes him a true inside centre, capable of cutting the lines as well as unleashing those outside.
Wales coach Warren Gatland has already prodded the beast by suggesting his side would target England’s tight-five at Twickenham. With Andrew Sheridan and Phil Vickery out injured England’s front row will be under huge pressure against a potentially all-Lion front row.
During the autumn internationals England endured heavy criticism for their turgid style and inability to attack with any pace or intensity – which resulted in just one try in three matches. Creativity and incision in the backs remain problems, and the forwards seldom served up quick ball and when they did the backs refused to exploit the chances in front of them. Martin Johnson confessed that the coaches had had too much influence on how England implemented their game plan – this has led to rumours of decaying confidence and a climate of fear pervading the squad. The coaches must learn to trust the players.
Coach’s perspective: Martin Johnson
“This is the best squad we have had in my time being in charge and it will only get stronger,” Johnson said. “We have a good leadership group and it’s the strength of any side that you have three, four or five guys who could be captain. It will be just as tight this year. Anyone who predicts who will win the title is a brave guy.”
Key player: Jonny Wilkinson
Much hype surrounded the Toulon fly half’s return to the international fray last autumn, but after a stuttering series Wilkinson has it all to prove once again. The 2003 World Cup winner was criticised for failing to get the backline firing by dropping too deep when England were in possession and refusing to diverge from the game plan when the opportunities to attack arose. The quality of Wilkinson’s kicking and his mindset in attack will dictate how England perform in the Six Nations.
One to watch: Mathew Tait
After years of utility back status, Tait will be considered at outside centre this season. If he can displace Dan Hipkiss in the starting XV and Flutey and Wilkinson can attack on the gain line, Tait’s searing pace will add an extra dimension to the attack.
Stadium: Twickenham, London
A mighty arena and grand setting, but Twickenham has been stripped of its ‘fortress’ prefix in recent seasons. The ominous booing of despairing fans has come to replace the booming tones of ‘Swing Low Sweet Chariot’.
England’s Six Nations Fixtures:
Sat 6 Feb v Wales, Twickenham Stadium, London
Sun 14 Feb v Italy, Stadio Flaminio, Rome
Sat 27 Feb v Ireland, Twickenham Stadium, London
Sat 13 Mar v Scotland, Murrayfield, Edinburgh
Sat 20 Mar v France, Stade de France, Paris
Last season: 2nd