Saturday, 18 March 2017

2017 RBS Six Nations

2017 RBS Six Nations Championship

England open their account against France, can they continue their winning form and make history at this years championship?
Before we get on to this years Six Nations Championship, we should probably take a brief look at what happened over the past 12 months to put England in such a strong position to make history.

Having crashed out of their home World Cup at the end of 2015 under Stuart Lancaster, Eddie Jones was handed the reins and his personality was immediately stamped on the squad when we handed the captains arm band to controversial NorthamptonSaints hooker, Dylan Hartley. 

It was a move that seems to have been a huge success as less than three months later, England were holding the Six Nations trophy having completed their first Grand Slam in 13 years.

It didn't stop there. In June 2016, England travelled to Australia for their summer tour to compete in the Cook Cup, a tour that Kiwi boss Steve Hansen described as the real test, quoting "England may have done the Grand Slam in the six Nations, but that doesn't worry us. The real test will come when they travel to Australia in June". Well Steve, how's a 3-0 series white-wash for a real test? 

England had never won a series in Australia, and the Aussies have only ever been white-washed once in their history (1973 by South Africa), so more records were starting to fall.

In the Autumn international series, England managed a 4th consecutive win against Australia since the 2015 World Cup, along with a first win against South Africa in 10 years and wins against Fiji and Argentina for an unbeaten series taking their unbeaten record to 14 (13 under Eddie Jones). 

That brings us to the 2017 RBS Six Nations Championship, a tournament that, should England manage to be the first side to do back to back Grand Slams, would see them reach 19 games on their win streak, setting a new tier one world record, and usurping the All-Blacks.

England vs France
With injuries to Robshaw, Watson, both Vunipola's and George Kruis, a number of adjustments were needed. Maro Itoje moved to the back row in light of England's mass of strength in the 2nd Row leaving way for a pairing of Launchbury and Lawes. Eliot Daly moved to one wing with May just pipping Nowell to the other while James Haskell found himself on the bench having recently returned from a 7 month hiatus owing to foot surgery as a result of an injury obtained during his 'player of the series' tour in Australia back in June. On the plus side, Joe Marler was back from a broken leg, a recovery he puts down to the 6 gallons of milk he drank during his time off!

It was a slow start with neither side really firing - England a shadow of their previous selves in Australia back in June. A lot of early handling errors set the tone for the game which only turned in the last 20 minutes when Eddie brought on his finishers. Haskell, George & Care the heroes, upping the speed and intensity to send Ben Te'o over for the try that ultimately clinched it for the men in white. An ugly win, but 4 points none the less and unbeaten streak continued.

Wales vs Englad
Not much change to the match day 23, with Clifford stepping in for Wood and Haskell still on the bench. Nowell stepped in for May otherwise everything else remained the same. Eddie Jones made a last minute decision to leave the roof open - always amusing since we all know how much the Welsh love to moan about that, media mind games from Eddie clearly.

Another slow start from England with a raft of early mistakes saw Wales take a foothold. In typical form, they'd decided this was the game to pull out all the stops and credit to Wales on the day. But England remained cool under pressure and when their chance came with 5 minutes left on the clock and Jonathan Davies failed to find touch from in goal, a clinical link up between Ford, Farrell and Daly saw England touch down in the corner. The extra points from Farrell a final nail in the Welsh coffin putting the game out of reach and securing England their second victory and extending the unbeaten record to 16. The win was still ugly, but another 4 points meant England were still sitting pretty near the top of the table.

England vs Italy
Given Italy's performances to date, a pretty hefty scoreline was anticipated, so a number of changes from Eddie jones were not un-expected. Jonathan Joseph was given a break (or simply dropped, we're not sure) and didn't even remain on the bench, Ben Te'o stepping in for him at outside centre. Danny Care got the nod ahead of Ben Youngs, James Haskell earned his first start and with Mako Vunipola fit again and on the bench it looked to be a strong selection. A fit Anthony Watson was not included and May was back in place of (in our opinion) the highly underated Jack Nowell - Why Eddie? A number of other selection options were ignored (Farrell to 10, Daly into the centres etc), suggesting an air of confidence in a strong performance - but was it over confidence?

Italy had a game plan, no question, and fair play to them. They'd had questions asked of their eligibility to be in the competition and something had to be done to answer their critics. 'Ruck-gate' as its since been coined, was that answer (for them). A loop-hole in the rule book surrounding the forming of rucks at the break-down, enabled them to disrupt England's game plan to such a degree that the men in white were completely turned around. For 40 minutes, it seemed that England had no idea what was going on, and questions were asked of their knowledge of the rules. Do we want to see it every week as fans - absolutely not, but did it work for Italy? In the first half yes, and even up to the 60 minute mark after some creative solo performances from the Italians, but England eventually got the measure of them, running in 4 late tries to clinch victory and the bonus point. 

They weren't helped by the mis-firing boot of Owen Farrell, a rarely seen sight and a huge shame on the occasion of his 50th cap with only a 43% success rate, but on the plus side, Dan Cole became the highest scoring England prop of all-time and England were now sitting at the top of the table with 3 from 3 plus a bonus point on a 17 game win-streak, one off the current world record held by New Zealand.

England vs Scotland
Billy Vunipola back from injury and on the bench with brother Mako along with Anthony Watson, Danny Care, Jamie George, Kyle Sinkler and Ben Te'o and England had a pretty hefty group of finishers. Nowell back in for May who finds himself relegated from the bench and out of the squad and JJ back in the midfield. This was set to be an interesting one. Scotland had shown a marked improvement over past Six Nations campaigns and with it being a Lions year, a lot was being made of this new look Scotland squad with many pundits leaning towards Scotland for the win despite it being at Twickenham and Scotland not having won there since 1983.

England had critics to answer and answer them they did! A blistering start and a Scottish yellow card in the first 3 minutes saw England 20 points up after just 10 minutes with 90% possession. An injury to key Scot, Stuart Hogg and moments later to his replacement, Bennet and things were going from bad to worse. 2 JJ tries, one from Watson (now a permanent replacement for the injured Elliot Daly following the yellow card incident at the start of the game), and 100% from Owen Farrell's boot and England went in at the half 30-7 up.

An Early 3rd from JJ in the second half to secure his hat-trick and man of the match award plus tries from Billy Vunipola and a brace for Danny Care coupled with the continuation of Owens from with the boot saw England complete an emphatic victory. 7 tries, 4 penalties and a new record against Scotland - thats one way to answer those critics. England also secure their 18th straight win, joining the All-Blacks for the world record and securing the six Nations Championship for the second year running. One game left to set a pair of new records for back to back Grand Slams and 19 games unbeaten, but with it, a huge weight on English shoulders.

Ireland vs England
Billy Vunipola gets his first start since returning from injury, Watson starts on the wing with Daly leaving Nowell on the bench and still no sign of May. Really poor conditions, coupled with a game in Dublin and records on the line and this was going to be tough. Ireland had put a stop to the Kiwi win streak, could they do the same to England? Short answer...yes! It was never going to e a master class in free flowing, open rugby, but far too many errors from England handed control to the Irish, who were, to their credit, clinical. England converted their points when the opportunities presented themselves, but it wasn't enough and ultimately a low scoring game fell in favour of the home side. Was the pressure too much? Who knows, but its a gremlin off their backs and a fresh start as they continue to prepare for 2019. 

We still believe in England and we still believe that England will win the World Cup in 2019

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