After completely annihilating Scotland over the last weekend, England has now equalled New Zealand’s 18 game Tier 1 winning streak; combined with Ireland’s lacklustre performance against Wales, it seems there is no reason why they cannot break the record and go 19 games undefeated.
17 of the undefeated games have been under the tutelage of Eddie Jones, who took over from Stuart Lancaster after England were bundled out in the group stages of their home World Cup. The win against Scotland saw them take the title for most undefeated 6 Nations matches, as well as finally finding the next gear that their performances have promised all season. Before the Scotland match, I was thinking England were undeserving of their victory record. But the 61-21 win showed a team who could very easily challenge the New Zealand All Blacks, at home or away.
England are now displaying quality first phase play, off the back of their powerhouse forward pack. The backline is allowed time and space to attack, thanks to a strong line out set piece and scrum base. This has been the strength of the All Blacks over the last two decades, and Eddie Jones has adapted this simple plan well for the players at his disposal. What is also apparent in the forward pack is a physicality unfamiliar to Northern Hemisphere rugby for many a year. Jones was criticised in the pre-season for his bruising camp which saw many key players injured. But now, England is showing a desire to batter and bruise opponents into submission – from the opening whistle as they showed against Scotland this weekend, and to the point where they cannot compete, as seen in their second round against Wales. Wales matched England’s physicality for 60 minutes, but their reserves could do no such thing, allowing England to attack deep from a mistimed clearance kick, and score in the corner at the 11th hour.
This leads me to my next point – Eddie Jones has borrowed the practice that Michael Cheika established at the 2015 World Cup, which involved having players on the bench not as substitutes, but players who could very easily earn a starting jersey. This means at the 60-minute mark, you see eight players coming on who are of world class calibre – and they can perform a crucial role. Travelling between away fixtures, this has been very effective, as it is these players who ensured victory in key tests in Sydney in 2016 and in Cardiff this year. England now possesses the ability to win on the road, a skill they didn’t exhibit under Lancaster. This is absolutely vital, especially in the 6 Nations competition. Next year, England’s away games include France, Scotland and Italy – arguably the easier side of the home and away draw – and so their skill to win away from home should see their unbeaten 6 Nations run continue.
There are still question marks over this English side. They have not yet played New Zealand, which for many a fan will leave an asterisk over their record – until they prove their worth against the Goliath that is the All Blacks. New Zealand coach Steven Hansen heaped praise on Eddie Jones in a recent BBC Radio Five interview for getting the best out of his players, and how encouraging it is for international rugby to have another nation dominating competitions. But I would bet that he is sitting at home licking his lips, firstly for the British and Irish Lions tour this winter, and then for the highly-anticipated matchup between England and New Zealand in 2018. Furthermore, the English have shown an inability to adjust to unconventional tactics, a weakness Italy exploited to great effect at the breakdown. The All Blacks, by comparison, change their game plan weekly as well as during the 80 minutes – depending on what is in front of them – and this is indispensable to their success. England need still to incorporate spontaneity into their gameplay.
One thing is for certain leading into this weekend, and that is that the atmosphere at Aviva Stadium will be electric, as anyone not in a white shirt will be cheering on the men in Green. I am not expecting an Irish win, though, and believe the English should be ready for another triumph.