Skip to main content

Six Nations preview: England

Owain Jones

England are the current favourites for the Six Nations, hoping to lift a 14th Grand Slam, and a second under Eddie Jones, but it won’t be plain sailing for a side looking to add finesse and finishing power to a rock solid platform up front. Jones has laid down the gauntlet and challenged his squad to entertain the country, while continuing the building process for the World Cup. Starting off with the Scots, they know no side will make it easy for the perennial pantomime villains.

Coach: Eddie Jones

Captain: Owen Farrell

Grand Slams: 13

Strengths

The rugby Eddie Jones has his charges playing is not loved, but it is mightily successful. He has an 72 per cent win record in the Six Nations, and helped lift England’s first Grand Slam in 13 years in 2016. Brutish rather than balletic, he prefers to bully sides into submission using his freakish physical specimens in the pack. In the backrow Jack Willis, Ben Earl and Tom Curry will be expected hit attackers hard and scavenge for ball while in possession Billy Vunipola, the only Saracens player to have tasted game time since November, will happily skittle defenders before offloading runners into gaps.

Out wide, they boast the jet-heeled Jonny May and Anthony Watson when space opens up, and if they are making no inroads, Jones can throw the spritely Paolo Odogwu, Harry Randall and Max Malins into the fray. If he can curb his ultra-competitive instincts, Owen Farrell’s leadership, will be integral to their fortunes.

Anthony Watson
Anthony Watson is one of many electric backs waiting for service (Photo by David Rogers – Getty Images)

Weaknesses

For all their possession and territory, England can be a blunt instrument in attack. The players can look over-coached, perhaps pre-programmed to follow a rigid game-plan that can stultify their ambition. A raft of absences – Joe Launchbury and Sam Underhill were injured and Joe Marler chose not to leave his young family – has meant Jones has had to use all his resources. At 9, the centurion Ben Youngs has his naysayers for his speed of ball and Elliot Daly still doesn’t look a natural fit at 15, with the enterprising Max Malins expected to threaten his position.

Off the pitch, England have not been helped by some of the coaching team being thrust into isolation after their forwards coach Matt Proudfoot tested positive. They also have the inconvenience of the highly-rated Jason Ryles, the attack coach, being stranded in Australia.

Most valuable player

Back in 2014, Maro Itoje led England to the U20 World Championship. Many tipped him then to become one of the greats and in 2021 that has come to fruition. Immensely strong – he bench presses 185kg – Itoje’s main role is to dominate the contact area and to cause chaos; he spoils ball at rucks, carries aggressively, tackles ferociously and has an antagonistic side that riles opposition but spurs on his compatriots. His toe-to-toe with James Ryan of Ireland in November looked like a dry run for this summer’s Lions tour (fingers crossed).

Off the field Itoje is a role-model; his strong jaw line has appeared on the cover of Tatler and as a politics graduate of SOAS (the School of Oriental and African Studies) he is currently fronting a drive close the digital divide for deprived children. A star to transcend the sport.

Player to watch

Still only 23, Odogwu has had a nomadic life in rugby. Let go by Leicester Tigers, where he felt constrained and unloved, he spent time with Sale Sharks, before being picked up by Wasps at the start of 2020-2021 season. A clutch of enterprising cameos, largely as cover for Zach Kibirige, saw him break into Lee Blackett’s first-team and this season, he has been a revelation with his powerful leg-drive busting tackles, and raw pace pulling him away from defenders.

Someone who can play wing or centre, Odogwu, alongside Ollie Lawrence, will be expected to provide the ballast that the missing Manu Tuilagi posed. His inclusion has left Jonathan Joseph on the periphery and fans will be hoping to see him given a chance during the tournament.

Paolo Odogwu
If given the chance, Paolo Odogwu could light up proceedings for England (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

What the coach says

Eddie Jones: “Our goal in the Six Nations is to play better rugby. If we can do it by running and passing and being attractive, then we want to do that. If we can do it by kicking, we will do it that way. We are always looking to adapt and evolve our game.”

Verdict

England will, no doubt, be aided by the lack of partisan crowds in Dublin and Cardiff, where the hostile atmosphere can inspire home sides. If they can throw off the shackles of a limited gameplan, a second Grand Slam under Jones’ tutelage must be feasible. The visit of the French in Round 4 could be pivotal. 

England Six Nations squad

Backs: Elliot Daly, Owen Farrell, George Ford, Ollie Lawrence, Max Malins, Jonny May, Paolo Odogwu, Harry Randall, Dan Robson, Henry Slade, Anthony Watson, Ben Youngs.

Forwards: Luke Cowan-Dickie, Tom Curry, Ben Earl, Ellis Genge, Jamie George, Jonny Hill, Maro Itoje, Charlie Ewels, Courtney Lawes, Tom West, Beno Obano, Will Stuart, Sam Underhill, Billy Vunipola, Harry Williams, Mark Wilson.

Fixtures

Scotland (h) Saturday 6 Feb, 16.45

Italy (h) Saturday 13 Feb, 14.15

Wales (a) 27 Feb, 16.45

France (h) 13 Mar, 16.45

Ireland (a) 20 Mar, 16.45

Six Nations stats

Most Six Nations appearances: Dylan Hartley (49)

Most Six Nations points: Jonny Wilkinson (496)

Most Six Nations tries: Ben Cohen 16

Captain of England on most occasions: Chris Robshaw (20)