It’s the 2nd of November. Yokohama. Drained, dejected, despondent. England are defeated by the Springboks in a World Cup final for the second time in 12 years. They were arguably the best team in the tournament, but were undone by a South African outfit that were, on the day, far better.
England’s opener against France comes 3 months to the day since that final, and every English player will go into it looking to make amends for the triumph that eluded them in Japan.
But the last few months have been turbulent for English rugby. Saracens – and the backbone of that England World Cup squad – have just been relegated. Those players will feel frustrated and disappointed, whilst others may feel like justice has been done. There are tensions in this squad – and it’s Eddie Jones that will have to disperse them.
For this reason, Jones will be under as much pressure as all of the other head coaches, who – apart from Gregor Townsend – each take charge of their first 6 Nations tournaments. He’s gone with a mix of new talent and old trustees, which will both frustrate and excite England fans.
Billy Vunipola, Henry Slade, Piers Francis and Joe Cokanasiga miss out through injury. Understandable.
But rugby legend, Andy Goode, can’t believe why Sam Simmonds and Alex Dombrandt haven’t been picked off the back of their scintillating club form. Some Exeter players have been wrongfully overlooked; fans also bemoan the fact that the uninspiring Willi Heinz keeps his place in squad – despite the fact that Jones said he wanted to ‘rebuild’.
More positively, however, surprise inclusions include Jacob Umaga (nephew of All Black Tana) and Ben Earl, who are uncapped. Fans will be excited to see them feature as much as the likes of Cowan-Dickie, Ford, Tuilagi, Watson, Curry and Underhill, who are all included.
After their training camp, they travel to Paris where they take on new-look France. This could well be the toughest test of their tournament. Indeed, according to the predictions shown above, their away matches to Scotland and France will be just that. Get through those and England could well be home and dry.
England are Rugby4Cast’s favourites to win the tournament, with a 32% of winning the Grand Slam.
If they manage to come out of the Paris game relatively unscathed, perhaps the Grand Slam is on. But can England meet the high expectations that the fans demand of them, and that they expect of themselves? Only time will tell.