With Eddie Jones naming England's 2018 Six Nations squad this Thursday (18th January), Crashball Rugby's editor Alistair Stokes previews their 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 an otherwise high flying England side to the final few minutes, while Ireland ended any hopes of a second consecutive grand slam in Dublin.
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 the 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 continued to be talked up as the side destined to finally knock the All Blacks off their perch.
The Harlequins backrower has endured a torrid time with injuries since being named World Rugby junior player of the year in 2015. Plenty of other contenders will be thrown into the conversation ahead of Chisholm as England's answer at number eight. Exeter dynamo Sam Simmonds, Bath's wonder kid Zach Mercer and the ever impressive Exeter Chief Don Armand are all fan favourites. However, as we well know, Jones likes eights that have an addiction to the B line and are adept in heavy traffic.
I'm sure Ross Moriarty would have been a favourite of Jones' if he had the chance to convert the Welsh star into an England regular. Chisholm will give you the hard yards and has that bit of spikiness about him that Jones so loves. While Chisholm may be behind the likes of Simmonds and Mercer, a bench appearance against Italy would do nicely, further expanding England's options in the backrow.
The names in the injury column of Jones' whiteboard are beginning to mount. With Elliot Daly ruled out for the entire tournament and Jack Nowell currently sidelined with an ankle injury, two winger spots are currently up for grabs. Woodburn may as well have sent Jones an email expressing his qualifications for the job, putting in some spectacular showings over the last two seasons.
The former Bath man is as commanding in the air as he is dexterous five metres from the try line. Woodburn's ariel performance in Leinster's own backyard and try-scoring performance against Montpellier last Saturday were world class. The 26-year-old offers the type of all-round game matched only by British and Irish Lions starting winger Daly. With Daly currently unavailable for Jones' third Six Nations, Woodburn has his biggest chance yet and is the type of player that only needs one shot to assert himself as a real contender for Japan in 2019.
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 still considered an 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: http://www.crashballrugby.com/articles/joseph-steps-into-playmaker-role-in-bid-to-retain-england-spot
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.
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 as a world-class operator and will likely peak heading to the World Cup next year.
Should Mike Brown succumb to injury or if Jones decides Watson will earn a start in the 15 jersey against Italy, we may well be looking at a horses for courses selection policy at fullback.
ROUND BY ROUND NOTE
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, Lions' man of the series Jonathan Davies and the ever-present George North. 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 parity in the pack but Owen Farrell will inspire 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. 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 a potential second grand slam. 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 unrivaled in the Northern Hemisphere. I have a feeling Joe Schmidt and his men will once again crash the party. (Ireland by 5)
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