With the Six Nations just over a fortnight away, all eyes turn to England. Eddie Jones’ side are set to challenge back-to-back Grand Slam wins and improve on their perfect record of 13 games from 13 , which they have maintained since Jones took over from Stewart Lancaster following England’s depressing World Cup run. But this feat could now be even more difficult, with injuries affecting more than half the starting pack.
Five are likely to miss the opening game against France on 4 February: the Vunipola Brothers, Mako and Billy, flanker Chris Robshaw and locks George Kruis and Joe Launchbury. All have played integral roles in the success of the side so far.
This will test England’s strength in depth, with dominant forward play integral to game- control, providing the service the backs need to seal victories. Robshaw and Billy Vunipola are particularly big losses to the side. Robshaw, captain under Lancaster, has brought a great deal of experience and leadership to a relatively young team. Billy’s absence, which looks set to last the entire series, will mean that the forwards need to make up for his unmatched work ethic and ball-carrying.
The loss of such leaders in the forwards has undoubtedly shaped Jones’ decision to stick with Dylan Hartley as Captain, despite a six-week ban for a reckless tackle on Leinster flanker Sean O’Brien. Hartley has now totalled 60 weeks in suspensions throughout his career and will not have played for almost two months if he starts the opener.
Jones says that he has had multiple talks with Hartley regarding discipline and his responsibilities as a leader. He has also given Hartley a strict fitness regime to ensure that he is fit and ready to go come the Portugal training camp on 22 January. Hartley’s leadership has undoubtedly helped mould the team into its winning form and Jones’ decision to keep him as captain is a wise decision—provided he stays fit—given the issues facing the team. By maintaining continuity, Jones’ is giving the team a better chance to stay disciplined and focused despite the inevitable changes of personnel the side is going to experience come 4 February.
But talent is still abundant with in the side. England still have a full-strength back-line to work with. The anticipated return of Anthony Watson from a jaw injury will only help to strengthen an already formidable attack. His world-class finishing and speed make him a key asset to the side in determining games and his chemistry with Bath teammates Jonathan Joseph and George Ford has often embarrassed defenders. Owen Farrell, as one of the best goal-kickers in the world, gives England the ability to score points consistently from penalties won anywhere in the opposition’s half. Having him at inside centre and George Ford at fly-half means the side will keep both Farrell’s boot and defensiveness, and Ford’s playmaking magic.
The recent news of Manu Tuilagi’s knee injury has saddened many who want to see the Leicester centre return to dominating the midfield of international rugby with brute force. But despite being an incredible player, he is yet to have played under Jones. Given the current success of the English backs, Manu has hardly been missed.
The silver-lining for the forwards could be the potential return of James Haskell following foot surgery. This had left him on the sidelines for six months, leaving him free to make a trip to The Bullingdon and show-case his musical talent last term.
If the Wasps flanker were to return in the same form as during the summer internationals against Australia, he would most definitely improve the forwards’ chances of maintaining their strength. So, not all hope is lost for Jones and English rugby going into the Six Nations. But for their success to continue, a level of adaptation will certainly be required. The talent is there, but whether the experience and chemistry of the side can hold up no one will know until 4 February.