This coming week has been a long wait for anyone connected with the England rugby team. While the wounds of their utterly dismal World Cup campaign are still fresh in the minds of fans and players alike, finally we have rugby again: a chance to begin the healing process. The imminent Six Nations could have suffered from a World Cup hangover. However, with England boasting a brand new coaching team, it will be an intriguing tournament for all involved. For England fans, a new chapter is finally upon us.
First, let’s talk about the new coaching team. I experienced an immense sense of vindication following the appointment of Eddie Jones as head coach, Steve Borthwick as forwards coach and Paul Gustard as defence coach. In my post-mortem of England’s World Cup campaign, I demanded that the RFU appoint a head coach from the Southern hemisphere and splash the cash on a high calibre support team. My prayers were answered.
The appointment of Eddie Jones has been almost unanimously praised. At last, England will be headed by someone with international coaching experience (the last two coaches, Lancaster and Johnson, had none), someone brought up on the Southern hemisphere diet of fast, flowing, full of flair rugby. Furthermore, he will be supported by two quality coaches. Borthwick was part of Jones’s coaching team with Japan, and Gustard’s efforts have resulted in Saracens being a dominant force in this year’s Premiership.
Although his first taste of international coaching was deemed a failure, heading the Australia team between 2003 and 2005 and being sacked as a result of poor performances, the rest of Jones’s CV will get England fans excited. He was technical advisor during South Africa’s triumphant 2007 World Cup campaign. His next foray into international coaching was with Japan. Taking over in 2012, Jones changed the face of Japanese rugby. He implemented an attractive, fast-paced style of rugby that culminated in the Japanese performances during the 2015 World Cup. No one will forget their much-deserved triumph over South Africa. Jones has proven pedigree as an international coach.
In the build up to the Six Nations, Jones has talked well. He has outlined his desire to implement a new English style, one that maintains the traditional qualities of good set-pieces, scrums and line-outs, while incorporating more modern aspects of offloading, utilising space and speed. Here, he has covered his bases. Telling us what we want to hear without committing himself to any specific style.
The squad announcement for the Six Nations was Jones’s first meaningful contribution as England boss. Household names like Geoff Parling, Tom Wood and Tom Youngs were left out, deemed too old to fit the long-term planning towards the 2019 World Cup. There was re-call for Manu Tuigali, someone tossed aside by the old regime. Seven uncapped players have been named, including the exciting prospects Maro Itoje and Elliot Daly. The prodigy Danny Cipriani was also left out, much to my dismay. While containing some intriguing decisions, the announcement was well in-tune with Jones’s rhetoric about the new chapter of English rugby.
Although it has been forecast, the decision to make Dylan Hartley England’s captain for the Six Nations is contentious. Hartley has an appalling disciplinary record, part of the notorious off-field antics during the 2011 World Cup, and around 54 weeks of suspension in his career. There are big question marks over his composure and ability to lead by example. However, in Jones’s defence, he has named him captain for the Six Nations only. This is a shrewd move, not only because of his questionable temperament but because his position as starting hooker is under threat from Jamie George and Luke Cowan-Dickie. Jones is avoiding a problem the old regime had, Chris Robshaw being in the team because of his captaincy role rather than his form. The tournament will be a trial of Hartley’s captaincy qualities.
The team for Saturday’s crunch game in Scotland will be announced later in the week. Jones faces a dilemma: does he select a team boasting youth, and risk an opening game loss to a Scotland side buoyant from a brilliant World Cup campaign? Or does he go with more experienced players, more likely to secure a first victory for the new coach? Jones’s first few games will inevitably be judged as experiments, whatever the results. However, one can not underestimate the value of getting victories under the belt. A victory should be the priority, using whatever players necessary. Jones has suggested he will err on the side of caution for the Scotland game, filling his 23 man squad with largely experienced players. However, uncapped players Ollie Devoto, Paul Hill and Jack Clifford are selected, and will be expected to play some part on Saturday.
Given this, my squad prediction, assuming that everyone stays fit in the run up to the game, is as follows:
15. Mike Brown, 14. Anthony Watson, 13. Jonathan Joseph, 12. Owen Farrell, 11. Jack Nowell, 10. George Ford, 9. Danny Care.
1. Mako Vunipola, 2. Dylan Hartley (c), 3. Dan Cole, 4. George Kruis, 5. Joe Launchbury, 6. Chris Robshaw, 7. James Haskall, 8. Billy Vunipola.
Owen Farrell gets the nod at 12. Jones sees him as a versatile player who can play both inside centre and his natural position of fly-half. His experience and precision from the kicking tee could be crucial in a tight game. Dan Cole gets the nod due to lack of a better option; if fit, Kieran Brookes would certainly be starting ahead of him. Chris Robshaw, relieved of captaincy duties, is in the team as a result of good club form. Finally, Danny Care beats Ben Youngs to the 9 jersey on form as well.
I expect Saturday’s game to be very tough. Scotland are fresh off the back of a great World Cup, narrowly losing out to Australia in the QFs; playing at home against the old enemy under a new coach will undoubtedly get them fired up. Despite this, I predict, after soaking up a lot of early pressure, England will be victorious by 6 points.