With the Six Nations kicking off this weekend, Crashball Rugby's editor Alistair Stokes previews England's tournament.
RUN UP TO THE TOURNAMENT
The expectation placed on this particular England squad is bigger than ever after two back-to-back Six Nations titles, including one grand slam. Anything other than first place will be considered a serious flop for Eddie Jones and co.
The past two years have been driven by the pain of a pool stage exit in a home World Cup, seeing captain Dylan Hartley and his men to one of the most successful runs in England's history, rivalled only by the 2003 World Cup winning side of yesteryear.
Twelve months ago, cracks had begun to surface in an otherwise unstoppable looking side. Close shaves seemed a running theme during last year's tournament, with Wales, Italy and France all pushing a high flying England side to the final few minutes, while Ireland ended any hopes of a second consecutive grand slam. England's 13-9 loss in Dublin left a rather unpleasant taste in the mouth of Hartley and his men, souring the celebrations of back-to-back Six Nations victories.
The memories of a stellar 2016 season are all too easily reminisced upon to cover the fact that England's 2017 was far from convincing at times. Jones' charges only enjoyed one convincing victory in last year's Six Nations, despite being crowned champions. The 61-21 victory over the Scots at Twickenham was indeed a spectacular romp to victory, but stood alone in an otherwise momentum killer of a tournament.
Good teams win ugly and that's certainly how England went about their business in 2017, but they must assert their dominance in this year's Six Nations if they are to be the side destined to finally knock the All Blacks off their perch.
Jones' side will have only benefitted from their struggles of 2017, in many ways, winning ugly was the best possible outcome for their long-term development. With a healthy smattering of injuries to key members of the first XV, there will be plenty of improvement for new players and new partnerships this year. While obvious quality is missing with the likes of Billy Vunipola, Nathan Hughes and Elliot Daly out injured, England's squad depth will continue to cement itself, as well as add extra impetus to keep the regular starters on their toes.
England have the weapons, lessons learned and the experience to win their third Six Nations title in succession. With Wales and Scotland ravaged by injuries in key positions, Ireland look once again to be the deciding factor in the final round of the tournament, though they will find their task far greater at Twickenham, the home of English rugby.
ONES TO WATCH (WHO WILL HAVE A BIG TOURNAMENT)
Exeter Chiefs' dynamo Simmonds has been a revelation this season, breaking the stereotype of big ball carrying number eights. His explosiveness in contact and fancy footwork has seen him unseat Thomas Waldrom, the Premiership's top try scorer in a single season. With Billy Vunipola and Nathan Hughes ruled out for the entirety of the tournament and Zach Mercer only recently graduating form the label of 'apprentice', Simmonds will likely enjoy his breakthrough season on the international stage.
Simmonds is unlike any other number eight Jones has ever selected for England and will force the rest of the pack to adapt to accommodate his style. The 23-year-old's pure desire to quash talk of his lightweight frame will likely see a few furious, unrelenting performances, unseen since James Haskell's exceptional performance in 2016's 3-0 tour to Australia.
Joseph's name may be one met with a few raised eyebrows here. The Bath centre has faced endless criticism over the last 12 months, failing to recreate the dazzling form that saw him terrorising the defences of Northern and Southern Hemisphere sides alike. Indeed, Jones himself dropped Joseph from a training squad as recently as last September, seemingly unimpressed with his club form.
After failing to earn a match-day spot in last summer's British and Irish Lions tour to New Zealand and feeling the pressure of the silky smooth operator that is Henry Slade, Joseph has busied himself adding strings to his bow. The 26-year-old has been stepping up as a distributor this season, demonstrating the type of inch-perfect long passes that first saw Slade catch the attention of fans and coaches alike. Check out our article on how Joseph has demonstrated these new skills here: Joseph flaunts playmaking skillset in bid to retain England spot
With Slade ruled out for a month with shoulder injury, Joseph will be aiming to reaffirm his spot as England's first choice outside centre, offering a wide skill set that would see the mercurial Slade sat firmly on the bench upon his return to fitness.
Fresh off the back of starting all three Lions tests and a handful of scintillating runs from fullback in the Champions Cup, I believe Watson is just about to reach his full potential this year. At times Watson has taken the wrong options, running when he should have passed/kicked and passing/kicking when he should have utilised his Harrier jet-like acceleration. But these decisions are becoming increasingly less common as he matures as a test player.
The London Irish academy product is putting more pressure on England's incumbent fullback, Mike Brown, than ever before, and is slowly learning his trade as a world-class back three option. How easy it is to forget just how young Watson is, the 23-year-old has plenty of growing to do and will likely peak heading to the World Cup next year.
With Mike Brown struggling with blurred vision, Watson may well have his chance to start in the 15 jersey against Italy. If Watson impresses enough or should Brown continue to struggle with his symptoms, we may well be looking at a horses for courses selection policy at fullback in the next few years.
ROUND BY ROUND
Round 1: Italy (away)
Italy took England out of their comfort zone last year with 'ruck gate' and you get the feeling England will be more motivated this year to put the Azzurri away by halftime than ever before. You can expect fewer experimental selections this year due to injuries and bans for key players and the fact that Jones will likely want his first team to hit the ground running against the weakest side in the tournament.
I think England will start their campaign with a bang, looking to gain as much momentum as possible ahead of the following week's matchup with arguably their biggest rivals, the Welsh. (England by 30)
Round 2: Wales (home)
There is no greater rivalry in English rugby than that between 'them' and 'us'. As Dudley Wood said in 1986 "The relationship between the Welsh and the English is based on trust and understanding. They don't trust us and we don't understand them"
Wales will travel to Twickenham without the likes of captain Sam Warburton, number eight Taulupe Faletau, fullback Liam Williams, Lions' man of the series Jonathan Davies and first choice half-back duo Rhys Webb and Dan Biggar. Wales enter the tournament with significant gaps in their most key positions. But that's just the way the Welsh like it, there is nothing more dangerous than a Welsh side with their backs against the wall.
England will have to be sure to take any momentum from the previous week's visit to Italy and unleash it on Warren Gatland and his men. I have a feeling England will gain at the very least parity in the pack, with Owen Farrell inspiring his backline division to cross for multiple scores. (England by 10)
Round 3: Scotland (away)
Scotland at home will be a very dangerous prospect this year, Gregor Townsend has inspired his side to attack with a never-say-die attitude that can reach breakneck speeds at times. England will have to try and outmuscle the Scots up front and make the most of the injury crisis they are currently suffering in the front row. If Finn Russell is allowed the lions share of possession and front-foot ball, they have the potential to be absolute world beaters. I think England will have done their homework and bully Scotland around the park, but I'm also predicting the Scottish backline to pull it out of the bag at times.
(England by 6)
Round 4: France (away)
France's poor run doesn't seem to have shown any signs of stopping. The ugly departure of Guy Noves paired with the uninspiring appointment of Jacques Brunel will have done little to inspire the nation. Brunel's pack looks to be more of a mobile and pacy threat than the France of the last five years, with some of the bulkier forwards left by the wayside for their more athletic counterparts. France can be a real banana skin of a fixture at times, but I think this year there will be few signs of a French revolution. (England by 15)
Round 5: Ireland (home)
Once again, Ireland will look to be England's party poopers, having ended their opponent's 2017 campaign with a defeat that ruled out consecutive grand slams. Last year's loss in Dublin left a sour taste in the mouths of the English.
The Irish provinces are looking relentless this year and their forward packs are operating at an intensity and endurance unrivalled in the Northern Hemisphere. I have a feeling Joe Schmidt and his men will once again crash the party with a score left on a knife edge in the final 10 minutes. (Ireland by 5)
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