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Six Nations preview: England set up as the team to beat

We’re at the half-way point in our Six Nations preview series. Ahead of the tournament opener tomorrow night, it’s time for us to run the rule over the bookmakers’ favourites, the “Auld Enemy” from across the water.

What, what? Jonny Wilkinson will try to kick England to overdue title.
What, what? Jonny Wilkinson will try to kick England to overdue title.

SEVEN YEARS IS a long time to make your fans wait for a Six Nations title, particularly if your fans are “Swing Low”-singing, George’s Cross-wielding Englishmen.

To put things into perspective, the last time England topped the pile, Martin Johnson was leading by example on the pitch rather than plotting tactical masterstrokes from the sideline.

The majority of pundits reckon that this might finally be England’s year. As for us, well, we just like to be different.

How did they do in 2010? Third place with two wins and a draw from their five games.

And against Ireland? Tommy Bowe’s 75th-minute try was the difference between the two sides in Twickenham last year, snatching a late 20-16 victory for Declan Kidney’s men.

This time around? Of all the contenders, England are arguably in the best form coming into this year’s tournament. Though far from perfect, Martin Johnson’s men showed promise in the autumn internationals, most notably in scoring a 35-18 success over Australia at Twickenham in November.

If we learned one thing from watching England play against the Southern Hemisphere sides late last year, it’s that they have the potential to do damage in the scrum. Alongside pack-mates Andrew Sheridan and Dan Cole, lock Courtney Lawes has been something of a revelation since his debut in that win over Australia.

If he can continue to develop and improve when he returns from injury, he will be a massive asset to Martin Johnson’s side.

The problem for Johnson is that if his forwards can’t do the business, his backs – Ben Youngs aside – don’t really offer much in the way of inspiration. If England are to bring home the bacon, they’ll need to make the most of their three consecutive home games which should allow them to build up a nice head of steam before a potential do-or-die clash against Ireland in the Aviva on 19 March.

Key Man? Twenty-one-year-old scrum-half Ben Youngs may only have three caps under his belt, but his impact on this England side since his debut last June cannot be underestimated. Despite his young age, the Leicester man clearly has a rugby player’s brain.

Expect his quick-thinking and ingenuity to unlock more than one defence over the next seven weeks.

One to Watch? Northampton winger Chris Ashton is another youngster who will feature heavily in any potential success for England. The former rugby league man’s quick turn of foot will give England a key injection of pace from the three-quarters line.

The bookies say? 9/5 favourites.

TheScore says? The team to beat, but not unbeatable.

Pick of the archives? He mightn’t be taking to the field this time around but we couldn’t miss an opportunity to replay Martin Johnson’s finest hour – the “snub on the rug” which gave his team the psychological impetus to claim a Grand Slam in Lansdowne Road in 2003.

To be fair, I think McAleese could have taken him, but it probably wouldn’t have been becoming of a president to do so.


Forwards (18): T Payne (Wasps), A Sheridan (Sale) D Cole (Leicester), P Doran-Jones (Gloucester), D Wilson (Bath), G Chuter (Leicester), D Hartley (Northampton), S Thompson (Leeds), L Deacon (Leicester), C Lawes (Northampton), T Palmer (Stade Francais), S Shaw (Wasps), T Croft (Leicester), N Easter (Harlequins), H Fourie (Leeds), J Haskell (Stade Francais), L Moody (Bath), J Worsley (Wasps).

Backs (15): D Armitage (London Irish), B Foden (Northampton), C Ashton (Northampton), M Banahan (Bath), M Cueto (Sale), D Strettle (Saracens), R Flutey (Wasps), S Hape (Bath), M Tindall (Gloucester), T Flood (Leicester), C Hodgson (Sale), J Wilkinson (Toulon), D Care (Harlequins), J Simpson (Wasps), B Youngs (Leicester).

Schedule

Friday 4 February (19:45) Wales vs. England

Saturday 12 February (14:30) England vs. Italy

Saturday 26 February (17:00) England vs. France

Sunday 13 March (15:00) England vs. Scotland

Saturday 19 March (17:00) Ireland vs. England

Do England deserve their position as the bookies’ favourites?

Read the other previews in our Six Nations series| Brian O’Driscoll reacts to Will Carling’s unconventional preview of the RBS Six Nations | Injuries no insult for Ireland

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About the author:

Niall Kelly

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