Next in our set of previews ahead of the 2016 Six Nations, we examine the prospects of England under new boss Eddie Jones.
Optimism around the England side has gone unrewarded in the past but a new head coach and new captain combined with some renewed swagger might just be enough to flock thousands back to Twickenham, forgetting the mess of last year’s World Cup campaign.
Eddie Jones hasn’t exactly tip-toed his way into the England head coaching role, more intent on tearing off some feathers as opposed to simply ruffling them.
The 56-year-old has picked a captain who polarises opinion like no other in the tournament, imposed a taxing timetable on his squad and made quite clear when questioned about some of his selections – before a game has even been played – that when it comes to who plays, he and his coaching staff will answer to no one outside of England’s camp.
Jones has also stated several times during his first few weeks that England’s record of one Six Nations title since 2003 is nowhere near acceptable based on their resources and number of players. By doing so he has set a clear target – only a Championship or Grand Slam will do. There’s no worth in coming second, as England have done for the last four years under Stuart Lancaster.
Gelling a new coaching staff together with a wounded squad featuring seven new caps is a enormous challenge. Jones you sense however wouldn’t want it any other way.
Last Year: Faced with a seemingly impossible task of defeating France by a record score in the final round, England came seven points short of winning the 2015 tournament despite producing an absurd 55-35 win over Philippe Saint-André’s side.
England avenged some of the ghosts from their 30-3 humbling in Cardiff by beating Wales in the opening game of the 2015 tournament, following it up with a comfortable victory over Italy where Jonathan Joseph stole the spotlight.
Ireland outsmarted England tactically in Round 3 in Dublin, handing Lancaster’s side their first loss in a game they were always chasing, before England rallied against Scotland, winning but hurting their title chances by not scoring enough points.
Which all set up that final day against France, having watched Wales and Ireland produce big wins themselves, knowing they had to win by 27 points. They fell short, just.
This Year: A favourable fixture list gives England an opportunity to think about winning the title. Ireland and Wales both have to travel to Twickenham and while games away at Murrayfield and the Stade de France are both difficult, they are also winnable.
Wales will return to south west London with no fear after their dramatic win in the World Cup group stage led to England being dumped out of their own tournament.
Those England players involved that day will have circled the date knowing this is a chance for redemption. The lack of a Farrell-Barrett-Burgess combination in midfield means at least we will see more English creativity.
Jones’ selection for the opener against Scotland is risk-free but the time will come for the likes of Elliot Daly and Maro Itoje to make a long-awaited impression.
How the new boss manages blooding uncapped talents whilst maintaining a competitive side is one of the key subplots, along with yet again finding the right balance in England’s midfield.
Manu Tuilagi and Henry Slade’s injury setbacks mean Jones will have to wait to see create his ideal centre partnership, and the combination of George Ford and Owen Farrell will be scrutinised as much as any pairing in the tournament.
Focusing on what Jones can control, should England get on a roll then they have a real chance to head to Paris on the final day with a shot at the Championship on the line.
Key Players: The questions about his temperament already appear to be wearing thin on new captain Dylan Hartley.
Perhaps the only way to respond will be a card-less Six Nations in which he shows the maturity expected of an experienced player captaining his country. Or by walking off the pitch at the Stade de France with the trophy under his arm.
Either way, his detractors will need proof that he can carry out his role with the maturity and level-headedness required.
The rebirth of Chris Robshaw as England’s blindside flanker is fascinating. Since the World Cup he has been in brilliant form for Harlequins, determined it seems to not go down in history as a failed Test captain.
No one will be hungrier for silverware and to bury their World Cup demons than him, and Jones has already laid down the gauntlet by suggesting he can become the best six in the competition.
George Ford remains England’s number one fly-half but has struggled to find the same success getting over the gain line this season at Bath as he did during a momentous 2015 on a personal level. Now is the time to rediscover that form.
Players to Watch: Should the spot on the bench of Courtney Lawes become available this weekend, with the Northampton lock battling a calf injury, then Maro Itoje may at last make his long-awaited debut in Test rugby.
Everything about the 21-year-old has indicated that he is primed to succeed at the highest level, from his temperament in big matches to age-grade success with England and the way he is revered at Saracens.
Itoje has both the athleticism to give England’s pack a jolt and more Man of the Match awards than any player at his age should rightfully own.
Paul Hill and Jack Clifford, just like Itoje, have been singled out as future England stars following their exploits with the U20s in recent years and will certainly make their debuts from the bench at Murrayfield.
Hill’s highlight of the season has been a sprint for the line at Welford Road for an ultimately disallowed try, but he has shone with his scrummaging work and can learn plenty from Dan Cole. Clifford meanwhile no longer seems to be the cast-iron answer at seven England initially imagined him to be, with many tipping his as a number eight, but he does offer that proficiency to turn over ball at the breakdown they have missed so noticeably in the recent past.
Prospects: The positive vibes surrounding England’s new era may quickly evaporate if they take a bruising at Murrayfield, but everything seems to centre on the visits of Ireland and Wales to what is now a Twickenham fortress undergoing major redevelopments.
Win just one of those games, and England will have a sniff of a third title in 13 years.
Saturday, February 6 v Scotland (Murrayfield)
Sunday, February 14 v Italy (Stadio Olimpico)
Saturday, February 27 v Ireland (Twickenham)
Saturday, March 12 v Wales (Twickenham)
Saturday, March 19 v France (Stade de France)