England: Six Nations Preview

The winds of change are blowing around Twickenham, but the air of optimism has been punctured somewhat by a string of untimely injuries. Courtney Lawes, Henry Slade, Elliot Daly, and Dan Kelly have all pulled out of the squad through various ailments. The Owen Farrell or Marcus Smith debate may be ended by the sheer necessity of having to play them together. It’s increasingly likely that Farrell will wear the twelve shirt on Saturday. Through the chaos, Steve Borthwick has maintained his consummate calm. Can England pull a few surprises and makeup ground on Ireland and France?

2022 was a challenging year for England, culminating in the departure of Eddie Jones. Poor results cost Jones dear, with the dissenting voices growing louder. There have been the usual rumblings of discord, and discontent levied at any past regime, but Borthwick will be mindful of bringing back a feel-good factor to Twickenham. HQ resembled a library in the autumn, and Borthwick needs to inject his players and fans with some energy. Borthwick has talked the talk so far, and there are encouraging signs, such as picking players on form, while the appointment of Nick Evans as attack coach shows ambition. England appeared to be going through the motions towards the end of Eddie’s reign, and Borthwick needs to restoke some fires. The talent is undoubtedly there; it just needs somebody to harness it.

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Borthwick’s first objective is to bring greater clarity to England’s play, which was too one-dimensional (bare those mad final ten minutes against the All Blacks) in the autumn. The appointment of Nick Evans suggests Borthwick wants to bring greater imagination to England’s backline, preferring precision over power. The culling this week of Jonny Hill and Jack Willis, two of England’s more physically imposing forwards, suggests Borthwick wants to play at a higher tempo, with greater emphasis on speed and mobility. But Borthwick should exercise caution; Ireland and France’s success has been built upon dominating the contact area. Size doesn’t mean everything, but England should be wary of sacrificing too much grunt. The Six Nations is an attritional tournament; sometimes, blunt force is required.

Kevin Sinfield’s appointment has been widely lauded, and he should bring some steel to England’s defence. Borthwick’s experience, combined with that of Richard Cockerill’s, will be invaluable to the set piece. England faltered at scrum time during the autumn, and the selection of Dan Cole suggests it’s an area that concerned Borthwick sufficiently. Set-piece solidity is vital if England wants to open up their game more; they need a solid base to build upon. Old traditional English strengths should be welcomed, not sneered at. Another key area for England is their kicking game, an area where France and Ireland are streets ahead of them. England often kicked aimlessly in the autumn, something South Africa ruthlessly exploited. Doing so against the French would be tantamount to rugby suicide.

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England start their campaign with two home games against Scotland and Italy, respectively. The Scots have developed something of a hold against England in recent years and will travel to Twickenham with quiet confidence. A fast start will be critical for England to energise the crowd and build early confidence. Stopping Finn Russell will be equally crucial, and England will need to slow down the Scottish ball, as Russell can be lethal if given a platform. The Italians have shown considerable improvement in the last year but have never beaten England before; a record Borthwick will be keen to maintain. A trip to Cardiff awaits in round three, never an easy game and one which always seems to bring the best out of the Welsh. France are the visitors in round four, and England will draw solace from the French’s woeful record at Twickenham, though this is no ordinary French side. England round off their tournament with a daunting trip to Dublin.

So what would represent a good tournament for England? A minimum of three wins would represent a satisfactory return, while it would also be refreshing to see a greater freedom in England’s play. There is an abundance of talent in the squad; they just need to be given the tools, and the clarity, to play. With a World Cup fast approaching, Borthwick is facing a race against time; he has a limited window in which to imprint his playing philosophy on the team. The RFU will be hoping for some good results to provide some distractions from the myriad of off-field problems which are weighing down English rugby. Can England lift the doom and gloom?

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