If we look back at the state of affairs that were apparent within England’s National side 6 months ago, coming off the back of a humiliating home World Cup capitulation and an early exit from the competition, it would be fair to say they were bleak. England were the first host Nation to ever be eliminated in the group stage and the first England side to not reach the knockout stages in the history of the World Cup – not good statistics for any English fan to read.
Fast forward to where we are now, however, and England are Grand Slam Champions, a feat that hasn’t been achieved by the national side for 13 years, have built up some serious momentum for their tour of Australia in June and all of a sudden are a team to be proud of and get excited about for English fans. If you studied the Six Nations squad picked this year and compared it to the World Cup squad of 2015 the difference is minimal, so what has really changed?
In my opinion there are three key additions that the present England side now have that are allowing them to raise their standards and find a level that the teams in the Northern Hemisphere simply couldn’t compete with this year:
Eddie Jones – Some critics are alluding to his early success as ‘beginners luck’ but for a head coach to come in and have the positive effect he has had in such a short space of time is nothing short of remarkable. Stuart Lancaster’s inability to unleash the potential of England’s World Cup squad, coincidentally on the same stage that saw Jones lead Japan to their best showing ever in the competition and a victory over South Africa that will forever be etched into it’s history, undoubtedly played a huge part in his selection as Lancaster’s successor. The concern would have always been on whether he could transfer this positivity into an England squad that was completely drained both physically and psychologically, but he has certainly lived up to the task. England are now a team that get their basics right before they attempt anything too flashy and allow themselves to grow into the match in terms of their flair and risk taking. They are a solid defensive unit that pride themselves on keeping the opposition from scoring tries and seem to have regained the stature of a team that can finish matches off, illustrated perfectly in their tight affair against Wales at Twickenham that finished 25-21. Jones has ingrained stability into the squad and a real hunger that makes the future of English rugby look more promising than it has done for some time.
Dylan Hartley – The appointment of Hartley, without doubt Eddie Jones’s most controversial decision so far during his short tenure, has paid off with flying colours. I’ve been immensely impressed with Hartley who, despite not being the focal point of all that has been exciting from England on the pitch, has conducted himself in the most professional manner and has gone about his captaincy with total proficiency. Hartley will never be a captain who puts in heart racing performances week in week out, but what he can now guarantee is a cool head that will guide England and lead them in the right direction as they look to make a dent in the fortress that is Southern Hemisphere rugby.
Maro Itoje – It is well known that England’s World Cup squad had the youngest average age of all the Nations present, but where Lancaster went wrong again is that he didn’t pick the right youth in the right positions. Maro Itoje’s omission from the squad, a player now being hailed as the next Martin Johnson, was blatantly telling and I’m sure Lancaster is kicking himself for it. Arguably England’s player of the tournament with his passionate and explosive displays, Maro has secured his place in the England starting XV from a squad that boasts an arsenal of world class second rows. The leadership skills he possesses at the tender age of 22 is frightening but even more so is the fact he backs this up with composed and outstanding performances he’s able to replicate in every match. Itoje is a gem for the present and future and hopefully his development will see him progress into the player many people are touting him to be.
It wouldn’t be accurate or fair to pin England’s success solely on these three individuals, as collectively England were excellent during the Six Nations and showed signs of a squad destined for big things, but for me they were pivotal in allowing England to reach their potential. Their presence has offered reliability in a squad that was in desperate need of it and a composed mind-set that knows the team’s capabilities and how to achieve their long term goals.
It’s important to remember that the Six Nations win is merely the first hurdle if England are to truly challenge for the mantle of being the best Rugby Nation in the world, however, it’s a fantastic start that will have made the Southern Hemisphere Nations stand up and take notice. The test series against Australia will be the perfect benchmark for Eddie Jones and England, and if they’re able to rise victorious who knows what heights this team could go on to and what future successes they could achieve.