Six Nations: How far can this new England side go?
Saturday marks a new year of international rugby. With last year’s championship forgotten, and recollections of the World Cup in New Zealand now assigned to the history books, European rugby reaches the peak of its season, with the six best countries ready to battle again in becoming the continent’s best test nation.
England come into the tournament as the holders, when last March they captured their 26th title and topped the table with eight points. Only Ireland could deny them the Grand Slam, but the squad that triumphed in 2011 is much different to 2012’s side. From the players on the field to the management team, England have announced a transitional phase of change.
However, amongst those retaining their places are Toby Flood, last year’s top points scorer, and Chris Ashton, 2011’s top try scorer, two players who are now looked upon as the experienced players amongst a new set-up.
Flood will miss the first game against Scotland due to injury, however, so veteran Charlie Hodgson will wear the number 10 shirt. Hodgson’s tactical kicking can be a good weapon to use should attacks run out of ideas, although questions still remain about his defensive qualities, and England may have to help cover him if they don’t want to be exploited.
Flanker Chris Robshaw captains England for the first time; however, for a job of such responsibility, following in Lewis Moody’s steps may be a difficult task for someone with so little test experience. The 25-year-old has just one international cap leading up to the clash at Murrayfield, though he does captain his club side – experience that may just make him suitable for the job in hand here.
Nonetheless, the lack of experience in not just their captain, but their entire squad, may just take the pressure off the holders, which should suit them.
After coach Stuart Lancaster announced his first starting line-up on Friday, only six players remain from the team that faced World Cup quarter-final defeat to France last October.
Ben Foden, try scorer in that defeat in Auckland, keeps his place at full back, whilst Ashton, who scored six tries in New Zealand, remains on the wing. Ben Youngs will combine with Hodgson amongst the three quarters, whilst the other three players who suffered at the hands of the French are Tom Palmer, Tom Croft and Dan Cole.
Not all the players are inexperienced: England’s front row looks familiar with Alex Corbisiero and Dylan Hartley linking up with Cole, and forgotten man David Strettle winning his first cap since 2008 on the wing.
Lancaster is a coach full of new ideas, as he has demonstrated with his selections already, and the fresh tactics may boost England’s chances of retaining the Six Nations trophy.
Graham Rowntree, assistant coach to Lancaster, believes Scotland should not underestimate England in Saturday’s Six Nations opener.
“We have not got as much experience as previous teams but these guys are good enough,” said Rowntree. “We’re underdogs in experience. No one expects us to do well. We will have something to say about that.”
A lack of discipline, pressure and expectations all affected the World Cup squad last autumn, and so, with a new shape, this fresh crop of players may cause a few surprises. This may start with a result at Murrayfield on Saturday, something which they haven’t achieved since 2004 – however, they are going to have to break their baron spell of not scoring a try at Murrayfield since their 13-35 victory.
Not a lot of people know what to expect from the national team this year, but if they can shock the rugby world at 17:00 on Saturday, both the players and the management team may become the main talking point of the rugby world once again.