By Ben Lovell-Smith | Sport Editor
England kick off their Six Nations campaign this Saturday at home to Scotland, and will go into the tournament as favourites, following victories in both the 2020 Six Nations and the inaugural Autumn Nations Cup tournament.
Preparations for the tournament this year are somewhat unique as the vast majority of the Saracens contingent of the squad have not played competitive rugby since England’s final match of the Autumn Nations Cup nine weeks ago. This includes the likes of captain Owen Farrell as well as stalwarts Jamie George and Maro Itoje. The rhetoric coming from the camp insists that the players will be match ready, as they train to more than test match intensity. In light of the short turnaround between the conclusion of the previous Premiership season and the beginning of the next, the players may actually be ‘fresher’ than their counterparts.
Additionally, Joe Launchbury, Joe Marler and Sam Underhill have all pulled out from the original squad, and there is no place for Kyle Sinckler who is still serving a ban for his verbal abuse of referee and former teammate Karl Dickson in Bristol’s Premiership match against Exeter. These gaps have been filled by Charlie Ewels, Waps’ Tom West and Jack Willis and Exeter’s Harry Williams.
It will be particularly interesting to see what combination Eddie Jones opts for at centre. With Manu Tuilagi sidelined there is a place for grabs at outside centre. Henry Slade is the most experienced option, with 31 caps and fulfilled the role most recently in England’s Autumn Nations Cup triumph. However, Ollie Lawrence was exceptional during that tournament, before losing his place to injury. Paulo Odogwu offers the wildcard option. The Wasps flier is in fine form having taken his chance after Malakai Fekitoa was injured and offers a power game most similar to Tuilagi. Significantly, he can play at either centre or wing and flexibility is certainly a feature that Eddie Jones likes amongst his backline.
England will not take Scotland lightly, having beaten them just once in their last three encounters and Eddie Jones will be desperate not to have a repeat of last year’s opening round defeat to France.
France have become a continual banana skin for England, having ruined their Grand Slam hopes last year and pushed the Autumn Nations Cup final to extra time despite fielding a second-string side. With a France squad struck by injuries to Gregory Alldrit, Virimi Vakatawa and Romain Ntamack, England will be looking to assert their dominance on home turf.
Whilst Italy do not pose much threat to England at home, the opportunity to secure a bonus point and add sufficiently to the points difference will surely be realised.
England’s away fixtures are against Ireland and Wales, victors of the Grand Slams in 2018 and 2019 respectively. However with both sides in transition and the unmistakable significance of empty stadia, these away trips may not fulfill the same dread that they have done in previous years.
Though there are a number of potential slip ups, England have a good chance of retaining their title this year and it is for certain that Eddie Jones will settle for nothing less.