Simply put, England were superb in 2016; going on a 13-match unbeaten run throughout the calendar year. Eddie Jones has managed to single-handedly turn England’s form around after their dismal effort in last year’s home World Cup and they are yet to lose under their Australian head coach. If nothing else, a Six Nations Grand Slam success and whitewash tour triumph in Australia in 2016 have helped to remind us just how strong this England side is.
Rugby matches aren’t won on paper but England are by far and away the punters’ tip for the title ahead of the 2017 Six Nations. First up for Jones’ men is a home fixture with France – one of the most inconsistent sides in world rugby. On their day, Les Bleus have the potential to go toe-to-toe with the likes of Australia and New Zealand but they have a tendency to fall short on the big stage.
England must be wary of fast-starting France if they are to avoid defeat in the opening fixture of the series. The visitors have won their first round clash in each of the last three years; including a 26-24 triumph against the English in 2014. If France bring their A-game to Twickenham, England could be in for a rough ride. The French pack might just be the most reliable in this year’s competition and that could prove crucial in a low-scoring affair.
Meanwhile, Jones’ men will travel to the Millennium Stadium to face struggling Wales as the visitors look to emulate their impressive road victory over their close rivals in 2015. Warren Gatland has temporarily handed the reins to Rob Howley and Wales have raised their game in recent weeks after receiving criticism following November’s defeat to Australia. Write Wales off at your peril; they always save their best form for the Six Nations.
Always a threat
The Welsh are dealing with a couple of key injuries at the moment but they will be raring to go come February. England travel to Wales on the second weekend of the tournament and Howley’s men will be looking to send out a statement of intent after their relatively easy opener against Italy. Jones will have to be wary of the Wales threat and plan for a way to combat their aggressive style of attacking rugby.
Italy and Scotland shouldn’t challenge England too much; especially as both games will take place at Twickenham this year. While the former are in disarray after losing a number of inspirational stars to retirement, Scottish rugby is on the rise. Buoyed by the likes of Stuart Hogg and Richie Gray, Scotland could do some damage in this year’s competition. They are certainly showing signs of competing at the very least.
England should dispatch both nations with relative ease but nothing is ever straightforward in the Six Nations. Italy have raised their game for the big occasion in the past and there’s nothing that Scots would love more than to hand the Auld Enemy its first defeat for well over a year. Jones must prepare just as vigorously for these two clashes as he undoubtedly will for the trips to Wales and Ireland.
But the biggest threat of all could come from rejuvenated Ireland. Joe Schmidt’s men have adapted to life without Paul O’Connell and their autumn victory over New Zealand in Chicago sent shockwaves across the world. If Ireland can find their best form throughout the competition, England could be set for a winner takes all showdown in Dublin on the final weekend of the series.
Ultimately, England’s Grand Slam hopes hinge on their tricky away games in Cardiff and Dublin. If Jones can mastermind the defending Six Nations champions to two away wins then England will be very confident of securing yet another Grand Slam – and their unbeaten run could continue for the remainder of the calendar year.