Six Nations 2019: England at a crossroads with Japan looming
Billy Vunipola and Manu Tuilagi return but Eddie Jones must decide on a settled team
Owen Farrell will captain England for their Six Nations opener against Ireland, fitness providing. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho
When England won back-to-back Six Nations championships in 2016 and 2017, it seemed unthinkable they would be in their current rudderless state just eight months out from the World Cup. The bounce provided by Eddie Jones during the first two years of his tenure faded quite spectacularly last term, leaving England at a crossroads with Japan looming. They endured their worst Six Nations campaign since 1983, winning two games en-route to fifth position. Consecutive defeats away to the Springboks followed before a mini-resurgence in the autumn, as they beat South Africa and Australia at Twickenham, as well as pushing the All Blacks close.
England’s struggles have partly been down to the huge strain put on their elite players, who have little time off between international and club commitments. Compared to their championship rivals - particularly Ireland - England seem to have no idea of their best side. Jones needs to settle on his starting XV and, fitness allowing, pick it consistently throughout the Six Nations. The return of Billy Vunipola will be a boon, while the tournament could see a meaty midfield axis of Ben Te’o and Manu Tuilagi flourish. England are targeting Ireland in their opening round visit to Dublin and a positive performance could prove the springboard for a strong championship challenge.
Jones was a breath of fresh air for England when he took over in the wake of the disastrous 2015 World Cup, his straight-talking, tough-love approach having an instant effect. England won the Grand Slam in 2016 - his first year in charge - and went on to win the first 17 matches of his tenure. Yet since back-to-back Six Nations titles in 2016 and 2017, England have stalled while other sides have moved on. Jones is contracted to England until after the World Cup and is now approaching the acid test of his tenure. The Jones era will ultimately be judged on how they perform in Japan, and it will be crucial for England to show signs of a serious revival during the Six Nations. Jones has the players at his disposal - fitness allowing - now is the time to stop experimenting and stick with a side for the next nine months.
An injury to Dylan Hartley means Owen Farrell - fitness allowing - will start the Six Nations as England captain. Jones’s strange reluctance to drop Hartley - who has been a liability both in terms of his waning ability and discipline - means he and Farrell have been sharing the captaincy. However, it will be Farrell alone leading England to Dublin. He is England’s most consistent and arguably best player, leading by example from outhalf and centre. Exceptional off the tee and faultless in defence - England’s hopes over the next year rest largely on his shoulders.
One to watch
With Sam Underhill set to miss the whole tournament after undergoing ankle surgery, there will be a lot of pressure on the 20-year-old shoulders of Tom Curry. The Sale Sharks flanker has earned five England caps since his debut in the summer of 2017 - the last coming in the November win over South Africa - and he is now the outstanding candidate to take the number seven shirt during the Six Nations and possibly beyond. Curry is an imposing presence around the park, good on the ball and in the loose. A competition debut against a possible Irish backrow of Josh van der Flier, CJ Stander and Peter O’Mahony is a baptism of fire - but expect Curry to hold his own and more.
Grand Slam: 8-1
Triple Crown: 7-1
England won six of their 12 Test matches in 2018, but finished the year brightly after a dismal six months. Victory in Cape Town prevented a series whitewash by the Springboks, before South Africa and the Wallabies were beaten at Twickenham in November.
Defeats to Scotland, France and Ireland saw England endure their worst Six Nations since 1983, as they finished in fifth position.