are is the opportunity in rugby to win a significant trophy, then immediately build upon it. But that is the situation England find themselves in after taking the title at the end of the strangest, longest Six Nations in Rome on Saturday.
After losing to France in the opening round, England did well to take the title on points difference. They were workmanlike when needed, such as on that horrible Edinburgh day in February, but also flowed at times against Ireland and Wales. France are the team whose fans have most to be optimistic about, but England cannot be too far behind. Scotland are in a much better state than they were 12 months ago, too.
The four matches to finish the tournament in October felt totally detached from the 11 that took place in the spring. Perhaps more than any sporting event we have seen so far, the Six Nations felt so heavily diminished without its fans.
England got the job done in Rome. Little more, nothing less. It was a fitful showing that saw them occasionally seem slow to solve problems and wound up by the Italians’ exuberant celebrations of small victories. They kicked and kicked.
But given they were robbed of a warm-up and were missing nine players who could reasonably have expected to make the 23 to injury (plus Japan-bound George Kruis), the result was all that mattered. Rust and unfamiliarity of some combinations seems perfectly excusable. It was encouraging that they were better in the second half than the first.
Now, buoyed by lifting some silverware (and the celebrations that followed), they have the opportunity to really kick on immediately, with four Autumn Nations Cup matches to come before Christmas, then five more Six Nations not long after. Only around a World Cup to teams play as many matches in such swift succession.
This burst of games come at a good time for Eddie Jones and England. Today marks 12 months since they lost the World Cup final to South Africa, and they are beginning to evolve, as Jones said they would in the immediate aftermath of that painful defeat. They remain a young side, and Maro Itoje and Tom Curry particularly appear to be generational players with years left to run.
The fixtures ahead are eminently winnable: first up is Georgia a week on Saturday, then a trip to Llanelli to play Wales (who, with a trip to Dublin beforehand, could be winless in six matches by then), before hosting Ireland. They have already beaten Wales and Ireland this year, and look in better form than either. Winning all three of those games would hand England a home “final” at Twickenham in early December against the winner of the other pool.
Jones is confident England are just getting started on their journey. The last piece of his coaching jigsaw, skills coach Jason Ryles, signed from Melbourne Storm, only arrives this week, joining Matt Proudfoot and Simon Amor in signing on this year. Proudfoot, particularly, has given grunt to England’s forwards, and their depth across the pack is increasingly enviable. There are areas, though, where much development is still required.
All those injuries mean that opportunities abound for fringe players and to test the depth that the Premiership provides. There were four debuts of varying lengths and impact in Rome – Jonny Hill got 68 minutes, and impressed, while Tom Dunn was only afforded a few seconds. We should expect that number to double in the coming weeks.
Against Georgia, Jones has the opportunity to try some new combinations. It would be good to see Ollie Lawrence handed a start alongside Henry Slade, because balancing a Manu-less midfield remains an issue. Some involvement for one or both of Jacob Umaga and Max Malins in the backs would be welcome, and it would be nice to see Joe Cokanasiga and Ben Earl granted more game time.
With Curry, Earl and Sam Underhill involved on Saturday and Lewis Ludlam and Ted Hill in reserve (not to mention Alex Dombrandt, who is not even in the squad) Jack Willis is part of a ludicrous generation of back-row talent, all of it under 25, but it is time for him to get a shot.
Over the course of the next month, some of England’s injured stars will return. When they do, they might find their positions that much more hotly contested. With a trophy in the bag, Jones has a golden opportunity to evolve his latest England team.
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