The last time England managed a back-to-back Grand Slam was in 1992 when their captain Will Carling was in his dimple-chinned pomp, and today’s opponents France suffered spontaneous combustion with a double sending-off at the old Parc des Princes.
The talk now is much more of bonus points than biff, but the overall challenge remains the same – how to keep on winning when form and fitness are ever-changing.
Eddie Jones’s debut Six Nations Championship as England’s head coach in 2016 set the tone for the entire year with victories from start to finish and Europe’s most glittering prize collected in Paris at the completion of the red rose’s first Slam since 2003 and only the second since Carling’s mob carried all before them in 1991, 1992 and 1995.
Not that the latter-day skipper Dylan Hartley remembered much about lifting the trophy at Stade de France, having been ushered out for the presentation a few minutes after leaving the field comprehensively concussed.
When Jones reaches down this morning to pull on the lucky red socks he wore throughout the 13 wins out of 13 overall in the old year, he may reflect the risk of suffering second-season syndrome will be more pronounced when England go to Cardiff next Saturday, or Ireland on the Six Nations’ final day in mid-March. The French have lost to England eight times in their last ten Championship meetings, and while there were promising signs in the losses to Australia and New Zealand last autumn, they have staggeringly failed to finish in the top half of the Six Nations table in each of the last five seasons.
What difference the introduction of bonus points to the Championship will make is intriguing. (Under a system familiar from the World Cup and Aviva Premiership, there are four match points for a win, two for a draw and none for a loss; and an extra point for losing within seven points of the opposition and/or for scoring four tries or more.)
England full-back Mike Brown, asked if a team with three tries in the bag, and a decent lead would stick or twist, said: “There are all sorts of things to consider. If you have been under the pump for 20 minutes on your own line [maybe] you are not going to risk anything. Then again, if you are on top…”
If this maths seems straightforward sitting on your sofa or atop your bar stool remember that a certain Billy Vunipola had no idea he was playing for bonuses in an England World Cup match in 2015. It will be incumbent on Hartley or maybe his vice-captain Owen Farrell to make instant and accurate reactions.
Vunipola, the peerless ball-carrier of a No 8, is sadly absent now, with a knee injury, and joined among the hors de combat brigade by his propping brother Mako, as well as Chris Robshaw, George Kruis and Anthony Watson. On the flipside, Jack Nowell and James Haskell are Grand Slammers available on the bench again after missing the Autumn Series; ditto Maro Itoje, the long-limbed leviathan who will pack down in Robshaw’s blindside place, although much may change when substitutes reshape the later stages.
Rain is expected in south-west London so England have prepared for extra scrums, and tortured Hartley and Mako Vunipola’s replacement Joe Marler with rigorous one-to-one fitness work to ensure their readiness after recent inaction. “Unbelievably industrious” was how scrum coach Neal Hatley yesterday described Hartley’s efforts to get match-fit following a suspension that means the 30-year-old skipper has played just six minutes for his club since the defeat of Australia nine weeks ago. Marler has been guzzling milk to aid a rapid recovery from a chipped bone in his leg.
There are potholes in the Twickenham car park that have been filled in with emergency piles of gravel. England must hope the second-row combo of Joe Launchbury and Courtney Lawes, and the battering industry of Nathan Hughes at No 8, will cover their gaps much the same. If Jonny May pierces the French wide out, and Farrell kicks his goals as the pugnacious Wiganer tends to do, England’s glory gallop should continue.