England's players return to international duty for the first time since their defeat to South Africa in the final of the 2019 Rugby World Cup, and the players will be desperate to prove that they still have the fight to win trophies under Eddie Jones.
2019 was a year in which England made a habit of finishing in second in major competitions, and while this was a step forward from an awful 2018, it still left the side wondering what might have been, with Eddie Jones’ men pipped to a Six Nations crown by Wales before they suffered the ultimate heartbreak by suffering a defeat at the very final hurdle against South Africa in Yokohama at the World Cup. Now, despite England being arguably the best team at the World Cup, Jones has a huge job on his hands as he looks to lift his squad, with a defeat in a World Cup final not something that is not easy to come back from.
Eddie Jones has named his squad for the 2020 #GuinnessSixNations ?
2️⃣2️⃣ players featured in the Rugby World Cup
8️⃣ uncapped players
— England Rugby (@EnglandRugby) 20 January 2020
2019 began with real pressure on Jones and his side following a dismal campaign in the 2018 Six Nations in which England finished in fifth with 10 points following losses to Ireland, Scotland and France with the 10 points they picked up from just two wins seeing them finish 16 behind Ireland at the top. England’s losses were all the more surprising considering they won the championship the year before, while they also won their opening two games against Italy and Wales before losing three consecutive matches.
Following this poor run of form, Jones knew things had to improve markedly, and so they did, with the Red Rose sweeping reigning-Grand Slam champions Ireland aside in Dublin in a 32-20 win that signalled their intent straight off the bat. While the Irish would go on to struggle to third in the table with 14 points following three wins before a disappointing Rugby World Cup, it is not ever easy to beat Ireland on their own patch, and so this win for England was surely a sign of things to come.
England’s next game saw them hammer France 44-8 at Twickenham as a Jonny May hat-trick inside 30 minutes put paid to the visitor’s hopes of winning the match, but this momentum fell apart as Josh Adam’s stunning catch and finish from Dan Biggar’s cross-field kick saw Wales clinch a superb 21-13 win over England at the Principality Stadium before England beat Italy and then drew with Scotland 38-38 in a pulsating match at Twickenham in which the home side simply had to win, but did not.
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The lessons of this dismal final game of the Six Nations saw England forced to swallow a hard truth, and they seemed to have really learnt the lessons of this draw as they went unbeaten through their 2019 Rugby World Cup campaign with wins over Tonga, United States and Argentina before a washout against France. A stunning 40-16 win over Australia saw England get one over on their old enemy before they produced arguably the performance of the tournament, with an incredible 19-7 win over double reigning-world champions New Zealand to set up a date in the final with South Africa.
England’s Rugby World Cup then ended in disaster as they were struck with a cruel blow in only the third minute as tighthead prop Kyle Sinckler was forced off after being knocked out following a collision with Maro Itoje, leaving usual ‘finisher’ Dan Cole to come on early, with the forward then given a lesson in scrummaging by a South African pack that absolutely dominated the set piece. England’s inability to either give themselves a platform through the set piece or pierce a brick wall-like South African defence saw them fall to a 32-12 loss to their opponents, with tries from Makazole Mapimpi and Cheslin Kolbe seeing the pair profit from a stretched and desperate England defence to score tries in the final. Now, all eyes will be on Jones and how he looks to lift his players again, especially with many of his best players coming from Saracens, who are in real trouble at the moment.
The 2020 Six Nations constitutes a huge tournament for everyone involved with England. With the real lack of vocal support from those high up in the England setup when it comes to the future of Eddie Jones, the silence has been deafening, and we feel that the coach may be one bad championship away from losing his role as the head-honcho of the England setup. With this in mind, it seems all the more important that the Australian starts well this season. A trip to France will of course prove to be a tricky one, but the side are still very much in transition, with new coaching staff and a huge cluster of uncapped talent one that may thrill, but will more likely struggle against what is now a very young but experienced English side.
For the team themselves, a few defeats would see the ill-feeling following the Rugby World Cup final defeat fester, and this would see the start of their new World Cup cycle stunted immediately. It is therefore vital that the side channel that match winning mentality they have been able to show right across 2019 into their opener in France.
The team itself is a very interesting one, with uncapped forwards Tom Dunn (Exeter), Ben Earl (Saracens), Alex Moon (Northampton Saints) and Will Stuart (Bath) joined by new backs Fraser Dingwall (Northampton Saints), George Furbank (Northampton Saints), Ollie Thorley (Gloucester) and Jacob Umaga (Wasps), with all looking to add something a little different to this England side. The major surprises in this squad come in the form of Dingwall and Moon, with the Saints’ players seemingly not on the radar of this English team, while there was a lot of talk about England’s likely fly-half cover for Owen Farrell and George Ford, with whether Jones would even look to have a third fly-half or not up for debate. However, the Australian has plumped for young Wasps’ 10 Umaga, who will be a name that quite a few will have had to look up on Monday morning when the squad was announced.
A real point of contention in the squad though comes in the form of the omissions. The likes of Jack Singleton, Mark Wilson, Dan Cole, Billy Vunipola, Henry Slade, Piers Frances, Joe Cokanasiga, Ben Spencer, Ruaridh McConnochie and Jack Nowell all miss out on a place in the squad after playing some part in England’s 2019 Rugby World Cup run, although the likes of Vunipola, Slade and Nowell likely miss out almost completely due to injury related problems. The players that will be very worried about their futures will be Cole, who is currently 32 and was hounded by the South African scrum in the World Cup final, and both McConnochie and Cokanasiga, with both wingers suffering with differing injuries last year which has seen the two dip in and out of the squad.
One apparent “problem” position for England going into this year’s tournament is number eight. Usual starter Billy Vunipola was once again struck by injury as he was forced off in Saracens’ Champions Cup win over Racing with a broken arm that will likely keep him out of the entirety of the Six Nations campaign, with Jones once again forced to shuffle his pack. However, the Australian has decided not to select any out-and-out number eights to cover Vunipola. Cries for Harlequins’ eight Alex Dombrandt became even louder on Monday after the announcement of the squad and his omission was one that has both surprised and vexed many fans, with the ‘Quins’ forward someone that has been impressing this season in the Premiership and Champions Cup. Indeed, Vunipola’s injury had seemed to almost ensure that he would be brought into the squad, but he has still not been chosen, although Ben Ryan, who is best known for winning a gold medal at the Olympics with Fiji as their rugby coach, quickly tweeted in reply to his omission:
I’d bet a Twix and a cup of Yorkshire Gold that dombrandt will end up in the team by end of six nations. https://t.co/S7J1En5P19
— Ben Ryan (@benjaminryan) 20 January 2020
While any reactions to an England squad must be taken with a pinch of salt as Jones’ best squad is not likely to be the exact same as the next person, the England coach will be desperate to see his team succeed and silence those that doubt him, especially after what ended up being a disappointing Rugby World Cup campaign when isolating their final performance.
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This year, the pressure will be on England to go into this championship and win it. England are the only one of the top four sides in the competition to have retained their coach, although a large number of Jones’ coaching staff have been changed. Meanwhile, the likes of Wales, Ireland and France have all seen major changes in coaching staff and while they will want to hit the ground running, this is not always the case when new management is brought in.
Instead, England should dominate the competition as they have a settled squad and coaching staff that will not likely look to change the style of the team, with the other three sides likely to see major changes in some way or another. For England, their focus will likely remain on controlling the set piece at the scrum and line-out as Jones seeks to gain control through the forwards before unleashing his powerful midfield and quick wingers, with the likely pairing of George Ford at 10 and Owen Farrell at 12, or just Farrell at 10, providing a lot of creativity in the centre of the park.
Our concern remains on some of the older heads in the side and, in particular, Ben Youngs. Youngs is one of those players that remains incredibly frustrating to watch when in an England shirt. When things are going well he is an outstanding player, able to control the game from the base of the ruck with quick and effective passing that allows his backs flat ball that can get them on the front-foot, while he has made some serious yards in his time, running off the base of the ruck or being on the shoulder of the man with the ball, allowing him to get at the opposition. However, when he is bad, he is awful, with ineffective performances that start with poor and inaccurate passing and woeful box kicks that mean England struggle to get on the front-foot. While Jones clearly does have a fine player in Youngs when things are going well, he is yet to find a world class nine that can still do the job even when he isn’t at his best with the main problem with Youngs being that there isn’t really a player behind him constantly pushing him to be better. England simply have to find a second-choice nine that could realistically take the shirt from their current scrum-half thus forcing Youngs to continually up his game.
Despite some concerns with the side this year, we are fully behind them going all the way and securing a Grand Slam after their World Cup heartbreak. England were the best team at the tournament as of the semi-finals with their win over New Zealand one of their best performances ever. Jones’ outfit were able to easily outplay their opponents in a match few had really given them much of a chance in and this showed the measure of the side, that even when they came up against one of the greatest sports teams of all time, they were able to come out on top. Now, with the likes of Ireland, Wales and France all going through a period of transition, this is the Red Rose’s time to steamroll all those before them.
This England side clearly have all of the tools they need to dominate the tournament with powerful front rowers backed up by skilful back-rowers, while their backs are among the best in the world and, one man in particular has caught our eye and we feel he will shine at the tournament. Jonny May is a player that just seems to love running and scoring tries. Indeed, if you were to put a rugby ball in his hands he would just take it and run, and run very fast at that. The winger may be dealing with a difficult situation at club side Leicester right now as he looks to nail down his future, but one thing is for sure, he is one of the deadliest finishers in the modern game and a huge loss for England whenever he is not available. While Jones may still be assessing his options on the other wing, with Jack Nowell, Joe Cokanasiga and others all in contention when they are all fit, one side of the pitch should very much be christened ‘May’s wing’, and we think that he will be the man to drive England on with the tries this year.
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The other man we think will continue his own fine personal form is captain Owen Farrell. Ever since Jones handed the captaincy to the back from hooker Dylan Hartley, he has not looked back. While Farrell may not have that same towering presence as Wales’ Alun Wyn Jones, where the fly-half seems to excel is in leading by example, with strong performances with the ball in hand or without it vital to England’s game, while he is one of the best kickers from a tee currently playing in the world today. Of course, there have always been question marks over his temper, and so this will probably prove until he retires, with a fair few showings of petulance or ill-advised behaviour on the pitch ending with his own trial by social media, especially after his ‘highlight reel’ of shoulder tackles, but we feel that while Farrell does have his moments where he worries every England fan, clearly, he is a world class player and Eddie Jones is no mug. The coach would not have Farrell as his captain if he did not believe he was the right man for the job, and we think he will play a huge roll in England’s campaign as they look to secure some silverware to help ease the pain of their World Cup final loss to South Africa.
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