By Jack Vavasour
This time last year England were preparing for what many thought would be a third successful Six Nations under Eddie Jones, having lost only one game in the previous two years. They won their first two games only to lose their final three.
Since then Eddie Jones’ side have lost a series in South Africa, only to recover to win three of their four Autumn Internationals, almost beating World Champions New Zealand. This came following a series of injuries to key players. England appear to be back to their best, the only real test of their form will come in this year’s Six Nations as they travel away to both Cardiff and Dublin.
Eddie Jones has named a strong squad prior to the last Six Nations before the World Cup. England will face Ireland without regular co-captain Dylan Hartley, which will allow for Jamie George to start at least the first few games. Jones himself has stated that this is probably the strongest squad he has named to date, it seems hard to argue with him.
The Six Nations will see the return of both Vunipola brothers and Joe Launchbury, these players will offer England serious power going forward, something they have appeared to lack in recent International breaks. Manu Tuilagi showed how much he had been missed when he made a brief cameo against Australia in the autumn, drawing numerous defenders and proving just how much danger he poses to the opposition. England, in the Six Nations, must not get bogged down by just relying on big runners. Recently, England have played some wonderful rugby and with players such as Henry Slade and Elliot Daly you don’t need to revert to a closed game. These are players who often glide through matches, creating opportunities for those around them, with the added power of these big runners this should be easier than ever as the ball should be more readily available for them.
Jack Nowell must be the most unlucky player in the World, not only has he been overlooked criminally throughout his career in favour of quicker wingers, but now Jones is joking about making him play at 7. Nowell seems to play out of his skin whenever the opportunity arises, he went on a Lions tour and fought his way onto the Test match bench. This raises the question why he isn’t starting week in week out for England? Admittedly the rise of Jonny May has been phenomenal, however, a player of Nowell’s class, especially defensively, currently offers far more than players such as Ashton and Cokanasiga.
Elsewhere in the squad, Dan Robson earns a well-deserved call-up and is set to make his debut off the bench against Ireland. Jack Clifford and Ollie Devoto, who both appeared to be part of Jones’ plans in 2016, are back after difficulties with injuries and form. Clifford especially is well regarded by Jones and it will be interesting to see whether he will fill the 7 shirt or whether Curry will return to the position vacated by Underhill’s injury. Elsewhere in the backrow Mark Wilson will be looking to further nail down his position in the side following a strong autumn.
Jones’ selection will determine the kind of game he wishes to play, many have suggested going for a full heavyweight attack, which would require playing both Vunipola and Nathan Hughes in the back-row, with Ben Te’o partnering Tuilagi in the centres. This would crush the Irish defence, however, England should look to outplay the Irish as they have the talent within the squad to do that and should not just be reliant on size.