By Richard Smith: A vociferous Twickenham crowd blasting out “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”, as England demolished a wilting New Zealand rearguard during the Autumn Internationals, was arguably the finest moment for England rugby union fans since that historical night in Sydney in 2003.
The noise echoing around the hallowed turf of English rugby was deafening and it was all because of a momentous performance that saw Stuart Lancaster’s men beat an All Blacks side, that hadn’t lost in 20 matches, 38-21, and they will be now looking to build on that December victory in what is a wide open 2013 Six Nations.
Having tasted narrow defeats to Australia and South Africa, Lancaster was hoping his men could show character, but he got a whole lot more with immense scrummaging twinned with relentless defence to break what had looked an unbeatable All Blacks side.
However, Lancaster will fully know that he faces a whole new assignment in the Six Nations, which gets underway on February 2, and he will need his 33-man squad to show the same sparkle as they did in the QBE Internationals over five energy-sapping games and not just for 80 minutes.
Cut by the bookmakers following that New Zealand success, England are joint favourites with France to lift the crown and many will latch on to the 9/4 offered in the latest betting to win the title, but can Lancaster’s men regain the Six Nations trophy they last won in 2011? And for Grand Slam success, you have to go back 10 years to 2003!
Manu Tuilagi’s progression over the last 18 months has been an integral part of England’s development and the gut-busting centre’s ability to scythe through defences should certainly have the back line going forward. Along with Brad Barritt, the pair make a sturdy defensive line-up as well and that should certainly aid kicking off with a success, as Scotland should be brushed aside in England’s opening game of the Six Nations at Twickenham.
Skipper Chris Robshaw’s decision making came in for some criticism during the QBE Internationals as he opted to try and score tries rather than kick penalties, but his talismanic display against New Zealand saw him come of age as the leader, and the Harlequins flanker will need to be at his best in the second and third games, as England travel to Ireland and welcome France to Twickenham.
Robshaw will be looking to orchestrate his pack through that tough brace of games and with Courtney Lawes back in the setup that is a huge bonus for Lancaster and with Maki Vunipola making gargantuan strides at prop the new kids on the block will be a major component of England’s squad.
It’s not only up front where those games can be won or lost as the No.10 position is sure to be an integral part and it’s still unknown who will be handed the fly half jersey for the opening game. Owen Farrell has been in mesmerising form for Saracens and his kicking ability will certainly notch a plethora of penalties, but Toby Flood will be hot on his heels after escaping a ban, whilst Freddie Burns is certainly not a weak link in an area England excel at.
Italy on home turf shouldn’t prove a problem for England, whilst a trip to the Millennium Stadium on the final batch of games is no easy task, but they face a Welsh side devoid of confidence and a side that have looked a shadow of the team that reached the semi-final of the 2011 World Cup.
Nevertheless, the main brace of games that could make-or-break England’s Six Nations campaign look to be Ireland and France and if they can dominate at the breakdown and continue to show attacking flare in the back line then come March 16 they could be lifting the Grand Slam and at 11/2 with Bet365 that could be excellent value.