Home ground: Twickenham, London
Coach: Stuart Lancaster
One of England’s great strengths is the structure they bring to their game. They may not have the counter-attacking ability of the French, but they have a way of building the phases until they find themselves in a dangerous position. Whilst they haven’t always possessed the composure necessary to finish teams off when in these positions, it is encouraging nevertheless that they are getting themselves there.
They also have the makings of a world-class front five. If all fit, a line-up of Corbisiero, Hartley, Cole, Parling and Launchbury would truly be up there with the best. All these players have plenty of years at the top level left in them, and with the likes of Tom Youngs and Mako Vunipola breaking onto the scene the future looks rosy in this area. Dan Cole has confirmed himself as one of the pre-eminent tight heads in world rugby; Geoff Parling is as astute a line-out operator as anyone and has recently added a ball-carrying side to his game; Joe Launchbury has bags of energy and pace, not to mention strength, that make him a handful in the wide open spaces just as much as the tight.
So often a team’s strength can be its weakness too. Structure is all well and good, but there have been many occasions over the past year where England have simply looked too one-dimensional to mix it with the best. As stated above, they have been guilty of panicking and squandering chances when a little composure was necessary. As dangerous as they looked against New Zealand, the nature of the performance was very much the exception not the rule. Let’s hope that is reversed in the Six Nations.
Owen Farrell and Brad Barritt have many admirable qualities, but attacking the gain line and distribution are not two of them. Often Manu Tuilagi is accused of going missing in matches, but the men inside him must take some of the blame for that.
So what is the solution to England’s attacking issues? See below…
Player to watch: Freddie Burns
The Gloucester playmaker has burst onto the scene this season, with a series of breathtaking performances that meant he could be ignored for international recognition no longer. He has an innate ability to spot a gap, the confidence to take a chance and go for it, and the pace to take him there. His vision of where the space is is second to none, and he has the natural talent to execute the necessary pass or kick to find that space.
What has been most impressive this season, however, has been his improved game management and kicking. His ability with ball-in-hand is well documented, but what will have impressed Lancaster the most is his improved control of a game, and his goal-kicking percentage. It currently stands at 80% in the Premiership – incidentally the same figure as Farrell, who is frequently lauded as ‘the best kicker in the country’.
Last season: 2nd
Last season’s campaign was a success in that a new coaching team and captain led an inexperienced team to second position in the table, losing just one match, narrowly against eventual grand slam winners Wales. Undoubtedly, this was a great achievement for Lancaster and his team. They did not, however, set the world alight with their style of play. They averaged less than 20 points a game and scored just 7 tries in 5 matches. This season, with a more established set up and a year’s experience behind them, the aim must be to play a more exciting brand of rugby. Although you sense that if they manage to go one better and win the tournament, no one would really mind.
It is a very, very tough one to call this year. Ireland have a favourable draw, with France and England at home, while France look the strongest but have to travel to the Aviva Stadium and Twickenham. It is unlikely that anyone will win a grand slam, but I still think France remain the favourites. England, for their part, will play some good rugby and finish a happy runner-up.