Six Nations 2022: All eyes on Marcus Smith as England hope for a fast start

Opening trip to Edinburgh likely to set the tone for Eddie Jones’s injury-hit squad

England

Last year: 5th

Odds for the title: 3-1

These are interesting times for England, who head into this year's Six Nations shorn of a number of key players but with victory over South Africa last November still fresh in the memory.

It’s no secret Eddie Jones is building towards another shot at world domination in France next year, but for now his main concern is putting a title-worthy side together in time for Saturday’s opener at Murrayfield. Owen Farrell, Manu Tuilagi, Jonny May, Sam Underhill and Anthony Watson are all big name absentees.

The trip to Edinburgh looks key - negotiate that hurdle and it's Italy up next, followed by the visit of a wounded Wales side to Twickenham in round three. Three momentum-building wins and the return of key players could fuel a title challenge.

The coach

Eddie Jones is heading into his seventh Six Nations as England’s head coach - a marathon tenure by modern-day sporting standards. He has a healthy return of three Championships (including one Grand Slam) from his six tournaments so far, as well as an overall win ratio of 78.2 per cent with England - comfortably a record.

However things haven’t always seem quite right since England were blitzed by the Springboks in the 2019 Rugby World Cup final. They finished fifth in last year’s Six Nations, with Jones scouring the English Premiership for young talent to add into his evolving squad.

On paper England will be up against it, but their November results suggest things might be different in practice.

The key man

Of all the players Jones would have been most disappointed to lose for the Six Nations, Maro Itoje probably ranks the highest. And while a score of big names have been ruled out, luckily for the Australian he can still call on the super-human Saracens forward.

At 27-years-old, Itoje now has 57 Test match caps to his name, and started all three matches against South Africa during last summer’s Lions tour.

Jones recently revealed Itoje had been sent for acting classes to try and improve his communication and leadership skills. But when it comes to leading by example on the pitch few can match Itoje - his tendency to leak penalties aside.

The one to watch

There are two words on everybody’s lips heading into the Six Nations - Marcus Smith. The 22-year-old Harlequins outhalf is in line to make his Championship debut against Scotland, after establishing himself on the international scene during the back end of last year.

Parachuted into the Lions tour as an injury replacement for Finn Russell, Smith impressed a lot of people in South Africa - including Gregor Townsend.

He then steered England to their autumn victory over the Springboks, kicking a 79th minute penalty in a 27-26 win. A prodigious, playmaking talent, this could prove to be his breakthrough Championship.

Fixtures

Saturday February 5th, Scotland v England, Murrayfield (4.45pm)

Sunday February 13th, Italy v England, Stadio Olimpico (3pm)

Saturday February 26th, England v Wales, Twickenham (4.45pm)

Saturday March 12th, England v Ireland, Twickenham (4.45pm)

Saturday March 19th, France v England, Stade de France (8pm)

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