Three games into the Six Nations. England the only team with a 100% record. So can they do it, can they win the Grand Slam?
The Welsh and French will say no, with games to come. The Scots and Irish will say, please no, anything but…
I never got around to predictions this year, but they would have been: 1. Wales, 2. England, 3. Ireland; rest, who knows?
But England have started well under new coach Eddie Jones and look like real contenders. The forwards are back to being a real power and there is pace and skill out wide. The confidence seems to have returned after the World Cup fiasco.
But the Grand Slam? With Wales so strong? (They drew against Ireland, hence not having that possibility themselves). What could do it? Well, it might just be the phenomenon that is Billy Vunipola. Yesterday, in the 21-10 win over Ireland, he was incredible. The yards he made powering through the Irish defence, was extraordinary. In the first half he made more distance than the entire Irish team!
And yet, in that stat lies the reason why England might blow it. For most of the game, the first half especially, they were so on top, camped in the Irish half, dominating possession. But so many moves broke down at the crucial moment: a misplaced pass, a dropped ball. They should have been out of sight at half time, but were only 6-3 up. It’s a familiar England problem, that lack of precision when it counts. They showed they could do it, for ten minutes in the second half, and they scored two excellent tries. That spell won the game, but they then put themselves under pressure again with another familiar trait: giving away needless penalties. They aren’t unique in this respect, and after all, it is a high-intensity contact sport. People make mistakes, try to get away with things. Both are punished. And the ref yesterday, Raymond Poite of France, who is usually fairly sympathetic to England’s style of play, lost his patience with them, no doubt at all.
If you ask yourself, would New Zealand or Australia have squandered so much possession, such dominance, the question answers itself. There is a way to go.
Still they did win 21-10, and defended very well at the end. I was delighted that Jack Clifford, Quins’ young star, came on and won a vital turnover at the end, which cancelled the building Irish pressure. He will be a permanent fixture in the team soon. And Saracen’s Maro Itoje was almost as awesome as Vunipola, in his first start for England in the second row. Amazing to have Courtney Lawes coming off the bench! England do have strength in depth.
The big collision is on 12 March. England v Wales. Could go either way. The winner will take the Six Nations. If England win, they still have to beat the French in Paris; and no matter how the French are playing, you never know what they’ll do on the day.
A way to go, but can England win the Grand Slam? I say yes!