Six Nations 2021: England have the firepower to retain their title

Preparation hasn’t been ideal but Eddie Jones has plenty of winners at his disposal

Maro Itoje will head into the Six Nations on the back of a lengthy break. Photograph: Robbie Stephenson/Inpho

England's Rugby World Cup hangover carried into the opening game of last year's Six Nations, as the beaten finalists were put to the sword by a resurgent France in Paris, losing 24-17 at the Stade de France. The response was swift and ruthless - England won their remaining eight Test matches in 2020, securing the Championship and winning the inaugural Autumn Naitons Cup in the process. Eddie Jones's side are deserved favourites to retain the title this year but there is plenty to suggest they won't have it all their own way over the coming weeks. England's early preparations were disrupted after forwards coach Matt Proudfoot tested positive for Covid-19. Jones and attack coach Simon Amor were identified as close contacts and both had to self-isolate for 10 days until January 27th, meaning all three coaches missed the start of England's training camp.

Jones has also been hit by a number of frontline withdrawals from the squad. Backrow Sam Underhill will miss the entire tournament with a hip injury, with Joe Launchbury also likely to miss the duration with a broken leg. He will be without Joe Marler who has opted not to join England's biosecure bubble in order to spend time with his family. Mako Vunipola is sidelined with an Achilles problem and Kyle Sinckler is suspended for the opener against Scotland. This litany of issues shows the fragility of playing Test match rugby during a pandemic, but despite these potential vulnerabilities England's strength in depth should see to them. There is no place in the main squad for Jonathan Joseph but 21-year-old Ollie Lawrence could help fill the void left by Manu Tuilagi in midfield. Jones has called up the uncapped duo of Wasps back Paolo Odogwu and Bristol scrumhalf Harry Randall, but the bulk of last year's champion squad remains.

England's Saracens core haven't played competitive rugby for two months but an extended break is likely to stand to Owen Farrell, Maro Itoje and co. Expect them to be fresh and ready to burst out of the blocks against Scotland.

Eddie Jones had to self-isolate after forwards coach Matt Proudfoot tested positibe for Covid-19. Photograph: David Rogers/PA

The coach

A spell in self-isolation will have been an inconvenience but it won't have slowed down Jones in his pursuit of back-to-back titles. This would be the second time England have retained the Six Nations under the Australian since he took over in 2015, ahead of Championship victories in 2016 and 2017. However there is no disguising it is the Webb Ellis Cup he really wants, and at this halfway point between World Cup cycles he might be more willing to experiment than usual - especially in the circumstances.


Jones - who turns 60 on January 30th - has never been afraid to bring youth into his squad, even if it is just to be a part of training camps. And he has made an eye-catching addition to his coaching staff in the form of 28-year-old Ed Robinson, the son of former England head coach Andy. With skills coach Jason Ryles unable to return from Australia for family reasons Robinson, who works as an attack coach for the Jersey Reds, will take the role on an interim basis. Despite the distractions and injuries England still retain a core of winners, and Jones will have them primed to do so once more.

The captain

Saracens' demotion from English Premiership for breaking salary cap rules means a group of England's elite players will be plying their trade in the second tier this season. For national captain Farrell, he is likely to take a trip to Cornwall as seriously as he would one to Clermont. But the drop in intensity of competition at a domestic level might reduce the physical and mental toll on the 29-year-old, who is a certainty to be touring with the Lions in South Africa (if it goes ahead). Farrell remains one of the world's best whether deployed at outhalf or in midfield. Faultless defensively and with a clutch kicking game off the tee he is a relentless winner - he could end the Championship with his fourth Six Nations winner's medal.

One to watch

At 30-years-old Jonny May isn't exactly rugby's next big thing, but the Gloucester winger continues to evolve into one of the most lethal attacking forces in the game. May has a knack for scoring jaw-dropping, logic defying tries - none more so than his second against Ireland in last year's Autumn Nations Cup.

England celebrate Jonny May’s wonder-try against Ireland last November. Photograph: Craig Mercer/Inpho

Picking up the ball deep inside England’s 22, he leaves Chris Farrell for dead before burning up the left and kicking ahead. He has the pace to hold off the covering Jamison Gibson-Park, sends it further ahead with a cultured left-footed hack before taking the bouncing ball and diving to score to the right of the posts.

It was a superb blend of athleticism and skill, and a reminder why May will be one of the most dangerous backs on show throughout the Championship.

The fixtures

Saturday February 6th - England v Scotland, London (4.45pm)
Saturday February 13th - England v Italy, London (2.15pm)
Saturday February 27th - Wales v England, Cardiff (4.45pm)
Saturday March 13th - England v France, London (4.45pm)
Saturday March 20th - Ireland v England, Dublin (4.45pm)

The bookies

Grand Slam - 2-1
Championship - Evens


An opening weekend assignment against Scotland will be tricky - but the Scots haven’t won at Twickenham since 1983. Trips to play Wales and Ireland won’t be as daunting without supporters meaning the visit of France looks like the acid test for England. Jones’s side could easily be heading to Dublin on the final weekend with a Grand Slam in their crosshairs.