////

The Six Nations So Far: How High Can England Finish? 

For the World Cup Bronze medallists, it has been a relatively positive start to the tournament. Going into their opening 2 fixtures, the goal would have been to come away with 2 wins. Italy and Wales will probably be their easiest games, but this is a team that is rebuilding and redefining how they play. These two games have given us a glimpse of how they are going to play at the 2027 World Cup. 

Changes in Defence:

Brought in by assistant coach, Felix Jones, the blitz defence has been an area of change in the England game. The premise of the blitz defence is simple and quick line speed in defence forcing the attack to play centrally and be pressured into errors leading to turnovers. Jones, who was instrumental in developing this defensive method for the back-to-back World Cup winners, South Africa, has called it a “work in progress” with England. But even when he started with the Springboks, it took time to develop but when enhanced became a deadly asset. 

Against Italy, it was obvious that this was new for the Roses. Whilst the majority of the time they managed to react and deal with teething problems that come with a new defensive system, when it didn’t work they were found out. After just 11 minutes into the game, Italy found their way through. If one man rushes out of the line too quickly, as seen in this instance, it becomes very easy to attack against. On minute 26, this happened again. This time it was Daly who was not closing down the space as quickly as the men on his inside which created the overlap, and Italy finished it off nicely. 

Against Wales, it appeared much improved. Whilst a long way off perfect, the English defence seemed to shut down the Welsh backs more quickly and force more errors than they did against Italy. Having said that, in both games the opposition scored more tries than England, highlighting the problems that may occur. 

When looking at the quality of their opponents coming up, any mistakes will need to have been ironed out on the training ground this week, otherwise, England’s winning ways may soon take a change for the worse. 

More Dynamic Attack?

Borthwick has often been criticised for “boring” rugby. During his time with Leicester Tigers, his title-winning team was focused on the fundamentals. A good scrum and maul, accurate kicking and more conservative play through the backs was the Tigers’ bread and butter in the 2021/22 season. It was this that brought England to the World Cup final. And whilst teams like South Africa and Ireland also subscribe to nailing the fundamentals, the difference is how dynamic the team’s backline can be when called upon. 

England, at times during the World Cup, looked stale and out of ideas in the backs, with kicking and playing the territory game being the first option at the expense of using the abundance of talent that England does have in the wider channels. 

The first two games of the Six Nations showed glimpses of England looking to play with the ball more. In defence, England is far from perfect, but change looks to be on the horizon. The fact that teams like Northampton Saints and Exeter Chiefs have been electric on the pitch with ball-in-hand in the Premiership this season could mean that it is likely to translate to England. Especially considering how many players from the Saints and Chiefs are in the English backline. 

England is playing it through the hands more. Freeman especially has benefitted from this, with an impressive outing in Italy. But this has yet to make a lasting dent. What is needed is some direct runners in the centres, to create space for Slade and Steward in the outside channels to bring in the wingers. Dingwell at Inside Centre has been solid, but he is not the presence to pin the defence that England need. With Tuilagi back in the squad, and Lawrence expected back for the final two games, a hard-running 12 will only further England in attack. Hopefully, some directness in the first wave – with the option to pull it back to playmakers – will create more space in attack and help open up the defence. It is refreshing to see England using width more, with the next stage constituting the creation of some space. 

Stand Out Players

None of the England players have been particularly poor, with all seemingly justifying their selection. However, several players have stood out. 

Ethan Roots has taken to test rugby well. He has looked prolific at the breakdown, offered himself as a strong defensive asset and been an all-round asset to this new-look England back 3. 

Tommy Freeman has shown what he can do on the wing. The Saints player has, when he has the ball, looked to create opportunities for himself. Running good lines, looking in control under the high ball and showcasing his footwork. He is someone who will get better and better each game for England and I look forward to watching him make the 14 jersey his own. 

The veteran at 10, George Ford, has been vital for England these first 2 games. Dubbed to be the understudy to Marcus Smith, Ford has stepped up and delivered so far this Six Nations. Apart from the charged-down conversion, he hasn’t put a foot wrong. He has kicked from hand well, a lot of England’s attack has been off him and hasn’t been a liability in defence. His cool head in close games has been only positive for England. 

Players to Watch 

England’s success in the remaining games may be determined by how well the returning players integrate and perform. Below are my three players to watch out for in the next few games. Two of them are players coming back from injury who, if they make an instant impact, could take England to the next level. My third pick is a player who will get more of a look-in due to injuries. 

My first pick is George Martin. The Leicester Tigers man is what the English pack are missing – size in the back 5. He offers a great carrying option in the forwards, he is forever making dominant hits in defence and does a lot of the unseen work around the field. I cannot rave about Martin enough – he will be the first name on the team sheet for years to come and I hope he gets the opportunity to establish himself in this team in the final three games as he returns from injury. 

Next up is Ollie Lawrence. Perhaps the most exciting player so far in the Gallagher Premiership, we have missed him in an England shirt this tournament due to an untimely injury. But his ability to pin defences with hard lines at 12, plus the development of his speed, footwork and handling (from playing mainly at 13 this season for Bath), means he can spark the English attack into action. 

Finally, another Bath man, Ben Spencer, will likely see a lot more game time in the coming rounds. Due to Mitchell’s injury, there is a vacancy at 9 for England. While Care has got the nod at 21 off the bench, Borthwick will likely trust Spencer to start, offering a more balanced and accurate approach compared to Care’s flair which has its benefits in the last segment of the game. Spencer has been key to Bath’s revival this season and deserves a shot with England – hopefully, he can take this chance. 

Latest from Columnists