David Campese has suggested that while Eddie Jones’s England will be hard to beat, they won’t play entertaining rugby. He may well be right, for Jones has been talking about restoring England’s reputation for dominating forward play. All the same it’s hard to believe that a side with George Ford at fly-half and Jack Nowell and Anthony Watson on the wing won’t play some sparkling stuff, as indeed Stuart Lancaster’s team often did before they suffered what looked like a collective failure of nerve in the World Cup.
So far the new broom which Jones was supposed to wield hasn’t exactly swept clean. Indeed it has scarcely disturbed the dust. The XV that starts at Murrayfield next week will still be very much Lancaster’s one. Only the new captain, Dylan Hartley, was missing from the World Cup, but he too was the first choice hooker for most of Lancaster’s time in charge. A change of coach or manager sometimes makes an immediate difference, and no doubt Jones will have brought something new to the team’s preparation. Nevertheless it would be reasonable for Scotland to conclude that England 2016 will be much like England 2015. They will however remember that England were pretty good and won four out of five matches in last season’s Six Nations.
Jones, who always talks a good game, as Australian coaches usually do, has said that Scotland start as favourites next week. This is a nice PR ploy. If England win, their coach can say they’ve beaten the odds. If they lose, he can remind the Press that he said Scotland were favourites. I don’t suppose Vern Cotter will be impressed. I suspect he has a healthy contempt for such mind games. He might remark that Jones has a reputation for talking nonsense. Before we played his Japan team in the World Cup, Jones remarked that Scotland were a first-half team who didn’t score tries after the interval. The implication was that Japan would outlast us. In the second half the try score was 5-1 to Scotland.
If you were to judge the respective strength of countries by the results of the European Champions Cup, you might conclude that this year’s Six Nations will be dominated by England and France. After all, no Welsh, Irish or Scottish side has qualified for the quarter-finals where there are five English and three French clubs. But I doubt if this is very significant, and not only because the French clubs – Racing 92, Stade Francais and Toulon – owe so much to players who are not French. Paradoxical as it may see, the success of the English clubs this year owes something to the disruption of the season by the World Cup. Clubs like Leinster, Ospreys and Glasgow depend more on their respective Irish, Welsh and Scottish internationalists than any English club does on its England players. (One exception is perhaps Bath who have indeed had a wretched time both in Europe and in the English Premiership.).
Glasgow’s European failure was disappointing but in the circumstances not surprising. They had a lot of players suffering a natural reaction from the World Cup, and in some cases a dip in form. Players have been missing on account of injury, and – the last straw – two of their six matches were played in vile conditions which made it difficult to play their fast handling and off-loading game. As it happens they won both these matches but without the four-try bonus points they might have looked for. Their only really poor performance came in the first half of their first match at home to Northampton – and that was before most of their World Cup players were back in the team. That said, it was depressing to see that in away matches against Racing and Northampton, they were unable to cope with their opponents’ driving mauls from a five-metre lineout, and conceded tries either directly or in consequence of this failure. Since Scotland showed the same weakness in the World Cup, one must assume that England will regularly employ the driving maul from lineouts, seeking to win penalties in their own half or in midfield, and then kicking for touch again deep in our 22. So one hopes that Mr Cotter and his fellow-coaches have been working on a solution to this problem. If they haven’t managed to find one, then, sadly, one must fear for the worst.
Yet it’s surprising that we are so vulnerable to this form of attack because in other respects our forward play seems stronger than it has been for years. One of the many pleasing features of the World Cup was the solidity of our set scrum where the front five of Alasdair Dickinson, Ross Ford, Willem Nel, and the Gray brothers did excellently against an Australian scrum that had, very unusually, made mincemeat of England’s. The English scrum may be more secure with Hartley back as hooker, but it was uncharacteristically feeble in the World Cup when Joe Marler at loosehead was a penalty waiting to be awarded. This is not something likely to have escaped the notice of WP Nel.