The Six Nations kicks off with three mouth-watering fixtures, including England’s opener against France.
Eddie Jones’ team will take the field on London on the cusp of history, but Guy Noves’ France team will look to spring a surprise and show that recent signs of progress were not an illusion.
From a miraculous injury recovery to unorthodox team selections, here are the talking points ahead of Saturday’s game.
Who do you think will win?
For such a headline statistic, the fact England are one victory away from setting a new national record for successive Test wins has largely escaped notice.
A win against France and Eddie Jones’ men will eclipse the 14-match mark established by Sir Clive Woodward’s World Cup winners in 2002-03.
England have furiously distanced themselves from the milestone, instead focusing only on delivering against the French.
False dawn or French revival?
France’s sharp decline that began in the last decade has continued its downward spiral since, but there were signs against New Zealand and Australia during the autumn that a resurgence may be around the corner.
Guy Noves is a respected coach who has been talked up by Jones and a clearer picture of France’s progress will emerge at Twickenham.
The battle up front
Joe Marler has downed almost seven gallons of milk in his bid to overcome a fractured lower leg, defying medical expectations to take his place in England’s front row ahead of schedule.
Now the challenge facing him is subduing France’s giant 22-stone tighthead prop Uini Atonio.
Groundstaff putting the final touches on the Twickenham pitch before the big kick-off 💦 https://t.co/737dzSA8fb— England Rugby (@EnglandRugby) February 3, 2017
Daly on the wing
The only surprise in England’s team announcement was Elliot Daly’s selection on the wing ahead of the in-form Jack Nowell, a call that Jones insisted was based upon a horses for courses approach, and not a slight upon Nowell’s form.
Daly will be making his first Test appearance since being sent off against Argentina in the autumn and is a player of rich potential, but many will be wondering why Nowell is not present.
New man at No9
Noves has mixed things up at half-back and gone with 22-year-old Baptiste Serin at 9, with Camille Lopez outside him.
It’s a skillful, technical combination which is sure to be pleasing on the eye, if France get enough ball, but one that perhaps lacks a little of the physical presence of their team-mates, and a potential weak spot for England to target.
The blond-haired Serin certainly looked promising off the bench in November and should catch the eye with often unorthodox passing and pace over the first five yards. Providing, of course, if his forwards do their job.
England rugby star Mike Tindall believes the Red Rose are the form team going into Saturday’s Six Nations opener and is hopeful the tournament will go down to the deciding game at the Aviva Stadium on March 18.
The 38-year-old, who made 75 caps for England between 2000 and 2011, was speaking to Sport360 at the Abu Dhabi Invitational at Yas Links Golf Club last Saturday.
“Hopefully, in an ideal world, the tournament will come down to a Grand Slam match either way, but I think England’s form they should go on and win a Grand Slam, whether they do, it’s probably in Ireland’s hands more than anything,” said Tindall.
“I think injuries are a problem, but they had injuries in the Autumn series and they still managed to come through it. One thing Eddie’s blessed with is, players who’ve been given chances, have come in and done a job.”
Alex Goode, the Premiership Player of the Year, was in Dubai last week to share his expertise at the HSBC Rugby Festival Dubai.
The 28-year-old missed out on selection for the Six Nations and has since been sidelined due to an ankle injury sustained earlier this month.
Despite the disappointment of missing out on Eddie Jones’ squad, Goode talks to Sport360 about what makes his club Saracens so successful and his thoughts ahead of the Six Nations.
Saracens are flying this season again in the Aviva Premiership and Champions Cup. Is it tough to keep the motivation going after such a successful season last year?
I think we’ve got a really good group of boys who are highly competitive and hugely motivated to get better. I think it’s also further enhanced by several players who play international rugby or others who want to get into their international teams. There is a want to improve and get better. I think the more impressive thing is there has been nine front-line players out the last few weeks and lots of injuries, and yet the team has put in some huge results.
We talk about being tight as the group. We set out being like a family and that closeness gets us through tough periods. It’s more about not letting anyone down. We ultimately believe that if people treat us well, then in return, we work really hard. From my best mates on the wing, you don’t want to let them down.
Your the reigning Premiership Player of the Year, but unfortunately you weren’t selected for the Six Nations squad. What do you have to do for Eddie Jones to select you again?
For me, I just have to make it impossible for him not to pick me. I just have to keep working on my game and keep showcasing my skills in the big games, the big European games, and show my point of differences, and what I bring to the party. I’m very lucky that at Saracens we play in these big European Cup games. I can keep knocking on the door and that’s all I can do on my part.
I honestly believe that throughout my life – I haven’t been first choice and not many people have – but those setbacks make you the person you are and give you the extra motivation, they force you to improve or you won’t get picked again. I certainly feel stronger from the setbacks I had at an early age and I hope this one again will be the same. I believe this will be. If you don’t get picked you have to work incredibly hard to get back in. The fire burns bright inside me more than ever and the want to represent my country again.
England and Ireland are in solid form again going into this edition of the Six Nations. What’s your assessment ahead of the start of the competition?
I think England are favourites. There are injuries, but the squad is strong. There is a lot of strength in depth, but there comes a point where too many injuries can be disruptive. The great thing about Eddie’s team is that it’s been the same team for the last year. Injuries might play an impact, that’s what worries me in the Ireland game.
Who do you think will win?
If England had all their players out, I’d say England would win. I would be weary of Ireland in that final game. I hope it comes down to that. If it’s a Grand Slam decider – England going for the most consecutive wins in history and its St. Patrick’s weekend in Dublin – it will be worth the spectacle alone.
That last game against Ireland will be everything and at the moment I don’t know which way it will go. Ireland are looking good, they are at home, Munster and Leinster are going well. It’s going to between those two.