Six Nations Preview: England

Date published: January 28 2014

Second in the last two years since Stuart Lancaster took over as head coach, England will be hoping for third time lucky in 2014.

Second in the last two years since Stuart Lancaster took over as head coach, England will be hoping for third time lucky as they enter a new Six Nations campaign with a strong pack, but unanswered questions in the backs.

Last Year: England were on course for a Grand Slam before heading to Cardiff and being utterly humiliated by Wales, in the now historic 30-3 shaming at the Millennium Stadium.

It was a wake up call for England regarding the areas where their game was lacking in comparison to the Six Nations champions – breakdown intensity, the lack of searing pace and power from their backs.

England might have been four wins from four before facing Wales, but cracks had been papered over.

Lancaster's team finished the tournament with only five tries to their name, four of those coming in the simple rout of Scotland in the first game.

That game-breaking spark that Wales have in abundance with players like George North, Alex Cuthbert and Jonathan Davies was something England missed, Manu Tuilagi being their principle and heavily shutdown weapon.

Their win over Ireland in Dublin ended a decade long run of failure in that city, although pretty it certainly wasn't in foul conditions, while against France the boots of Owen Farrell and Toby Flood were relied upon. England's 18-11 win over Italy, thanks to six Flood penalties, was the narrowest winning margin in history between the two sides at Twickenham.

England had been unconvincing right up until up until the moment that Alex Cuthbert left Mike Brown, wrongly selected out-of-position on the wing, face down in the dirt. Then they were exposed.

This Year: Those wounds from Cardiff are firmly on the way to being healed. Perhaps though only complete redemption for England will come when Wales arrive at Twickenham on March 9.

The truth is England are much stronger. Their pack, benefiting from the Lions tour for senior players and playing in Argentina for those left behind, have developed a steeled edge.

In defeating Australia and pushing the All Blacks close England earned respect for the way their forwards controlled the set-piece. It is their indisputable strength, something that wasn't so certain when Geoff Parling was ruled out through injury.

Parling started the final Test for the Lions against the Wallabies and naturally was viewed as integral to England's November hopes, but the combination of Joe Launchbury and Courtney Lawes no longer seems to balance in favour of athleticism over intelligence.

Lawes' development in that area, running England's line-out, has been a surprise development. It has meant that Lancaster has not been forced to sacrifice power for a line-out operator, when both abilities can be found in the 24-year-old Northampton Saint.

If England are successful this year, it will come down to having another year's worth of wisdom and experience at the heart of their squad.

Two years on from Lancaster's arrival at the helm and following the overhaul of not just the national squad but also the culture, England are indisputably heading in the right direction. He deserves an abundance of credit for the good work done so far.

The area that is holding England back though regards injuries to their backs. Ideally Lancaster would have fielded Marland Yarde and Christian Wade on the wings, two players overflowing with raw speed and X-factor, but both will miss out.

The Brown experiment in the 11 shirt is rightly over, renewing that battle at 15 between the in-form Harlequin and Saracens full-back Alex Goode.

A new crop in the absence of Wade, Yarde and Ben Foden have therefore come in – Anthony Watson, Jack Nowell and Jonny May. Any of those three could start against France but May arguably has the best chance, an elusive flyer scoring tries and with the same game-breaking ability possessed by a North or Cuthbert and a touch more experience.

That is if the ball comes his way. England's bugbear has been getting Owen Farrell to attack the gain line and unleash his runners, likely to be Billy Twelvetrees and new man Luther Burrell in the centres.

It's an area Farrell has noticeably improved on this season as his club Saracens have modified their style, with the 22-year-old also benefiting from working with the Lions in Australia. Should he be able to bring the likes of Burrell, Lawes, Launchbury and Billy Vunipola into the game more often with flatter passes, England will open up more space. His kicking game and defence are excellent, but England need him to push on. The influence of Twelvetrees outside will surely help in that regard.

England have the pack, goal-kicker and defensive system. Their fixture list is favourable, travelling to Paris to take on a French team who whilst improving are still a mixed bag and without Thierry Dusautoir, before hosting their two biggest threats to the title in Ireland and Wales at Twickenham.

When Scott Williams sped away up the Twickenham turf in 2012 to hand Lancaster his first defeat, England were still raw. Two years on, having gone through the ecstasy of beating the All Blacks and the agony of last March, they are a different beast – out to put last year's nightmare behind them.

Key Player: Billy Vunipola doesn't take a lot of analysis. The guy comes as you see him – a 6ft 2, (allegedly) 277lb wrecking ball of a number eight who persistently breaks tackles. He's the type of player England have sorely lacked with his uncanny ability to get past the first and sometimes second man.

Vunipola played on the tour to Argentina but his first true taste of Test rugby came last November against Australia, Argentina and New Zealand. Over those three matches he made an average of 44 metres, making more carries than any other England forward. If it's getting over the gain line that England need, he can certainly provide the solution.

One to Watch: Anthony Watson. England have not handed a Test debut to a 19-year-old since Mathew Tait, whose international career never panned out quite as expected.

Watson will hope to travel down a different path should he be given an opportunity over the next two months. He certainly deserves a chance, impressing for Bath since his move from London Irish on both the wing and at full-back.

His electric pace is truly exciting to behold and although areas of his game require work, Watson has been tipped to play at this level throughout his entire junior career. Now could be his moment, more likely off the bench than as a starter.

Prospects: England's whole tournament could unravel if they underestimate France on the opening weekend.

Sure, Les Bleus only defeated Scotland and Tonga last year and Dusautoir is out, but if France develop the ability to gel their squad then of course they're a threat.

A Grand Slam is not impossible either with Ireland and Wales coming to Twickenham. Those two matches are incredibly close