This time last year, England were stunned by Scotland at Murrayfield: they had similarly come off the back of two wins from two, but Finn Russell and co made sure England paid for a run of poor performances. What a difference a year makes. With a squad close to being fully available, England look back to their best under Eddie Jones. Just in time for a trip to Cardiff in what will be Warren Gatland’s last Six Nations managing the Welsh.
There was a sense during Jones’s record equalling 18 match unbeaten run that England had peaked too early for the World Cup and burnt out. After a humbling 2017 Six Nations and tough tour of South Africa, progress had clearly been made during the Autumn Internationals. However, it was just that: progress, not the kind of electric form you’d want going into an open World Cup in which the All Blacks are clinging on as favourites.
England’s spectacular return to form against Ireland ensured their place as World Cup contenders but that momentum must be carried into the Wales game for them to be considered a serious threat. Although winning in Dublin isn’t easy, playing in a ferocious atmosphere at the Principality Stadium against a side who are unbeaten in 11 is the acid test of both England’s discipline and game management. Especially when the Six Nations hasn’t seen the best of Wales yet – a cliched game of two halves In Paris and an underwhelming display against Italy means a dominant home performance is due.
Gatland does, however, have a headache at fly-half with Gareth Anscombe just edging Dan Biggar, without either looking convincing. Leigh Halfpenny is out through concussion, meaning Liam Williams will have to be at his best to deal with England’s kicking game and the pace of Elliot Daly and Jonny May. Taulupe Faletau has also been ruled out of the tournament, but Wales’ exceptional depth in the back row means that Justin Tipuric, Ross Moriarty and Josh Navidi still form an outstanding unit.
It’s in the back row that England have looked most vulnerable over recent years, given Billy Vunipola’s injury record and the lack of a true openside flanker at seven (James Haskell and Chris Robshaw’s six and a half joke wasn’t funny for anyone who remembers David Pocock and Michael Hooper annihilating England at the breakdown in 2015). The form of Mark Wilson, Tom Curry and the injured Sam Underhill, means that England finally have flankers who can match work rate with competition over the ball. It’s hard to spot a weakness in a fully fit England squad, with depth, especially in the second row, now exceptional.
They’ve bounced back from poor results as any good team does, their game management is improving and there is leadership across the pitch. Still, if England are to establish the ‘elite’ winning culture of Clive Woodward necessary for World Cup triumph, they must consistently be at their best against the best. A 16:45 kick-off in Cardiff seems like a good place to start.