HOW ARE THEY LOOKING?
After a deeply disappointing Six Nations in 2021, England enjoyed a pretty encouraging Autumn Nations Series. The 69-3 win over Tonga that kicked things off may have been merely the expected cakewalk, but the two narrower victories which followed against Australia and South Africa were seriously impressive. The Wallabies were beaten 32-15 and failed to score a try, while the Springboks lost 27-26. The ability to see out a tight game such as that one against the South Africans could prove invaluable in the coming weeks.
They have two away games to start with, in Edinburgh then Rome, then they are at home to Wales and Ireland before ending their campaign in Paris. Years when teams have three away fixtures tend to be tougher, but England will look at this particular schedule and think that if they get things right today the whole tournament will start to open up for them.
Heaps of it. Right now England’s dressing room, metaphorically at least, is littered with more bodies before the tournament kicks off than are usually on stage at the end of one of Shakespeare’s bloodier history plays.
Harlequins centre Joe Marchant joined an already lengthy list of absentees earlier this week when he tested positive for Covid, but while he can be expected to return to action in the near future, others have longer-term injuries and will play little or no part in the championship. For example, captain and centre Owen Farrell, arguably the single most important member of the squad, has been ruled out because of an ankle injury that has required surgery.
Courtney Lawes, who had been favourite to take over the captaincy from Farrell, has been ruled out of the Scotland clash because of concussion, while Jonny Hill misses out with a foot injury. Jonny May looks set to miss the whole campaign because of a knee injury, and another winger, Anthony Watson, has been out since October with a ruptured ACL. Manu Tuilagi, Sam Underhill, Henry Slade and Joe Marler are among the others who have been sidelined by injury or illness in recent weeks, all of which has made for less than ideal preparation.
Having said that, if there is one side in the Championship with the resources to deal with such difficulties, it is England. And, in the case of Farrell, if the skipper’s absence is required before Marcus Smith is given a run in the team, it could even prove to be to England’s advantage.
CHALLENGE FOR SCOTLAND
As Gregor Townsend’s team have won two and drawn one of their last four meetings, England may not represent the psychological barrier that they have been for many Scots sides down the decades. But they are still formidable opponents, partly because of their strength in depth, and partly because of the high level of physicality they bring to the game when at their best. Head coach Eddie Jones has not suggested that, rather than playing the home side at their own expansive game, his team will try to play in a tighter, more controlled fashion. The problem then for Scotland would be how to win enough ball to ensure that they can stretch – and hopefully tire out – the English defence.
A complex character who can be by turns curmudgeonly and comical, Eddie Jones already had vast coaching experience before he took charge of England following the 2015 World Cup. He makes high demands of his staff but is also adept at taking a lot of pressure on his own shoulders with the aim of ensuring his players perform in uninhibited fashion.
Has won three titles in his six Championships to date, including a Grand Slam at the first time of asking in 2016. Also took England to the World Cup final in 2019. Turned 62 last month and is contracted until after next year’s World Cup.
If Marcus Smith starts at stand-off he could pose Scotland exactly the kind of problems that Finn Russell has been posing his opponents for years. A late call-up for the Lions last summer, the 22-year-old Harlequins back only has a handful of caps to date but is already a world-class playmaker.
The very minimum expectation is that they do better than last year, when they went into the tournament as defending champions but ended up in fifth place after winning only two matches. More realistically, their supporters will expect them to be up there challenging for the title.
But, as we saw last year when Scotland won three matches yet only finished fourth, you can have more victories than defeats without even getting into the top half of the table. With this Championship looking even closer to call than last year’s, England may have to content themselves with modest progress rather than achieving a radical revival of their fortunes.
Sat 5 February, v Scotland (4.45pm, BT Murrayfield)
Sun 13 February, v Italy (3pm, Stadio Olympico)
Sat 26 February, v Wales (4.45pm, Twickenham Stadium)
Sat 12 March, v Ireland (4.45pm, Twickenham Stadium)
Sat 19 March, v France (8pm, Stade de France)