Crowded rugby calendar means a lot change change before Six Nations - but what state will England be in?

England suffered a poor Autumn Nations Series and the pressure is now on Eddie Jones.England suffered a poor Autumn Nations Series and the pressure is now on Eddie Jones.
England suffered a poor Autumn Nations Series and the pressure is now on Eddie Jones.
The weeks between the autumn internationals and the Six Nations are crowded and sometimes confusing.

We have URC fixtures, European Cup ones and 1872 cups ones too, a lot of home and away stuff. The Scottish clubs got the winter weeks off badly last week, Edinburgh losing in Treviso, Glasgow being hammered in Dublin. Most of their Scotland players were rested; nevertheless …

Looking beyond these congested few weeks, one also looks back at the international matches. For us, given that we start the Six Nations at Twickenham, the natural question is: can England be as bad in February as they were in November when their only win was against Japan and they lost to Argentina and South Africa, while pulling off a draw against New Zealand thanks to a remarkable turn round and the best quarter of an hour they had in the month; the only good spell in the four matches, according to their severest critics in the Press?

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Then there is a big question mark over the coach Eddie Jones. Has he lost the dressing-room? He has certainly lost much of the Press and public. Of course both are fickle and a a couple of good wins might have them changing tack. For the moment however there is a notable absence of the assertion “In Eddie we trust” on social media. Even the moguls in the RFU seem to be having doubts as his repeated assurance that England are on the right path to winning the World Cup seems less convincing,

Something has seemingly gone wrong, though the coach can’t be held responsible for the poor kicking of his young halves and full-back against South Africa. No doubt they will kick more accurately another day – if they survive, that is.

The English game has always been based on forward power, on a scrum sufficiently dominant to allow the backs to flourish. At present England don’t seem to have that power. The Vunipola brothers who have made such a contribution to the team for years now seem to be in decline. Not long ago Maro Itoje was one of the three or four best locks in the world. On present form he might not be ranked in the top ten. Tim Curry was an outstanding openside, but his form has faded. If you were picking a Lions squad, you would probably leave him out. Forward play may improve when Courtney Lawes, a successful captain in Australia last summer, is fit again, but he is probably in the evening of his career and has surely suffered too many concussions for his return to be desirable.

There seems to be general agreement that the 10-12 combination of Marcus Smith and Owen Farrell isn’t working well. What do they do about that? Even journalists often critical of Farrell say he has been playing excellently for Saracens, but at fly-half, not inside centre. If he was moved to 10 to replace Smith – or if he was dropped – there would be a sure place in midfield for Henry Slade, England’s most creative three-quarter. At present, with Farrell at 10, he is restricted to bench duty because there is still the hope, though not perhaps the confidence, that Manu Tuilagi, free at last from injury, will recover his formerly bulldozing form; but there was no sign of this in November. England might be a better team with George Ford at 10, because he controls a match more intelligently than either Smith or Farrell, but, recovering from injury, he hasn’t yet played this season. Finally they have a problem at scrum-half Ben Youngs judged to be over the hill, no one fully ready to replace.

Things may look very different of course when February comes. Before then, Edinburgh will have the chance to test themselves against Saracens, home and away, in the Heineken Cup. Whatever England’s problems, Saracens have been playing very well and winning, perhaps, some may say, because they aren’t burdened with a domineering coach like Eddie Jones. That said, the fairest verdict on the November roundabout is that France and Ireland remain joint favourites for the Six Nations, provided Johnny Sexton is at 10 for Ireland and Antoine Dupont at 9 for France. Neither team looked convincing last month whenever these two were missing.