England will head into the Six Nations as distinct ‘second favourites’ following a challenging year for Eddie Jones’ men. With the 2019 championship only a matter of a few weeks away, we begin assessing England Rugby’s chances.
Their struggles began when Ireland beat them 13-9 in Dublin on the final day of the 2017 Six Nations, a result that ended their 18-match unbeaten run and crushed their dreams of setting a new world record. Since then they have lost seven out of 19 matches and they gave a miserable showing at last year’s Six Nations. Can they turn things around this time, seize the Six Nations and ensure they head to the 2019 World Cup surging with confidence?
England Rugby objective #1 – Climb the world rankings
They are now down to fourth in the world rankings, below New Zealand, Ireland and Wales after a poor run of results. They finished fifth at last year’s Six Nations, sandwiched between France and Italy. They then followed that embarrassment up with a test series defeat to South Africa.
Sure, England Rugby fans can take heart from a narrow 15-16 loss against the All-Blacks in the November internationals – plus subsequent victories over Japan and Australia – but this remains a team low on confidence, and struggling for inspiration.
Climbing the world rankings must be objective number one. That will come from a minimum of three victories – to claim the Guinness Six Nations trophy, five wins is a must; beginning in Round One. And with the likely compeition looking tougher each year, a good start is a must!
Increased competition in Six Nations
While England embarked on a downward spiral, their Six Nations rivals kicked on in impressive fashion. Ireland have emerged as arguably the world’s best team in the past year, beating New Zealand 16-9 in November and then thrashing the USA to extend their winning streak to six. They have won 18 of their last 19 matches, and that included a Grand Slam at the 2018 Six Nations, where they beat England 24-15. In Johnny Sexton, they have arguably the world’s best player, while Tadhg Furlong, Conor Murray and James Ryan have proven themselves as world-class players.
If you take a look at the Rugby ‘Outright Index’ at Sporting Index, you will note that Ireland are the clear favourites to win the Six Nations – and deservedly so. England are second in the betting, but you write off the Welsh at your peril.
Wales finished runners-up last time around and coach Warren Gatland is confident that they can win their first Six Nations title since 2013. He claims that if his Wales squad can vanquish the French in their opener, they will go on and triumph. They are blessed with big names like Jonathan Davies and Alun Wynn Jones, and they also have the prospect of breaking their record for most consecutive Test wins when they take on England, so they will be well up for a battle.
“I think we’ve got a great chance of winning the Six Nations if we win that opening game,” said Gatland. “That first game is going to be our toughest. We feel like we’re in as good a position as anybody. The whole thing about Six Nations is momentum. If you can win your first couple of games, you have a great chance.”
Eddie Jones must motivate his England Rugby side to begin their 2019 campaign, with their finest outing of the last 12 months.
Toughest game ‘first up’ for England
Momentum will be equally crucial to England’s chances of success, and they could not have been handed a tougher opening game. On Saturday, February 2, they must travel to Dublin to face Ireland, who have beaten them on their last two meetings.
If they lose that match, winning the tournament will become an uphill struggle.
The odds are squarely supporting Ireland. It places more emphasis on Eddie Jones motivating his England Rugby squad from the get-go. Ireland are no ‘easy beats’ anymore.
England host France in their second game and then travel to Wales, which amounts to an unfortunate opening half to the 2019 draw. It would have been far better to face Italy first and then Scotland; hopefully building up momentum, before heading into crunch games against the Welsh and fired-up Irish team.
England managed to beat Wales last year, but that was at Twickenham, and the Welsh are much stronger at home. Jones will need his players to rediscover the magic that carried them on that famous 18-game winning run if they are to defy the odds and seize Six Nations glory this time around.
Ireland face a difficult away game in Wales to close out their campaign, and if England Rugby are in touching distance at that stage, they might just pull it off.
Eddie Jones must navigate Injuries and player fatigue
But they need big performances from their leading lights. Sam Underhill has been ruled out, as has Anthony Watson, and England will look to the likes of Owen Farrell, Maro Itoje and the Vunipolas to carry them to victory. There is a lot more optimism around the team after their Autumn International showing, and Jones has done well to bolster his squad with the likes of Joe Cokanasiga to negate a number of injury concerns. Yet fatigue could also be an issue for England as they embark upon their Six Nations campaign.
Saracens continue to thrive in the Champions Cup and Exeter are still in contention to qualify for the knockout stage of the tournament, so Jones’ big players could be shattered by the time the Six Nations rolls around.
All in all, England’s status as second favourites feels about right. It would be amazing for their momentum ahead of the Rugby World Cup, if the England Rugby side were to win it but, right now, it looks unlikely.
Ireland are on fire at present and they have home advantage in the opening game, which could set the tone for the rest of the tournament. Their players will be a lot fresher than England’s, as the likes of Farrell are battling away in a competitive Premiership and contending with European commitments too, and an Ireland win looks likely.
Yet the real prize this year is the World Cup, and if England Rugby end their Six Nations campaign on a positive note, it could set them up for a genuine tilt at glory.
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