This Saturday England travel to Dublin in search of their first grand slam and Six Nations title since 2003. Funny, that year sounds familiar. It comes as some surprise that in those seven years since the last grand slam and also that world cup win in Australia, that England have rarely been pushing for a Six Nations title. In fact in the last 7 years England have only finished 2nd twice, which, for a major rugby playing nation can only be seen as a serious run of poor performances.
This season however, has seen an upturn in results. With one game remaining, the English squad have scored more tries and points, conceded less points, and, in what has been a rather mediocre season for the Six Nations, played some exciting, fast-paced running rugby that has attracted plaudits from around the globe. What has happened? What is the reason for this sudden change? And more importantly, what does this mean for the world cup?
Years of disappointment have turned to feint hope and has strengthened further following a drawn summer tour to Australia in 2010 and then by good displays in the Autumn Internationals at Twickenham, English international rugby is definitely on somewhat of a rise. I say “International” because the form of English clubs in European competitions has deteriorated in recent years. When looking at the success of a national team, one naturally begins looking into the domestic situation in that country. While Super 15 rugby and the Top 14 in France have gone from strength to strength, with faster, more attractive, free flowing rugby being played, the English Premiership is not exactly standing out above others.
So, if the improvement in the performance of the English national team is not down to an improved domestic standard, what could it be? I think the key lies in the nature of the squad and the nature of the style that they play. Last weekend England fielded one of the youngest front rows in its history with a combined age of 69 years. The combination of this youthful energy and intensity mixed with experienced heads such as Mike Tindall, Nick Easter, Simon Shaw and Jonny Wilkinson, gives the English team a lot of energy without lacking direction and focus. It is this direction that has enabled England to score an average of three tries a match so far in this year’s Six Nations.
The discovery of the year so far has to be Chris Ashton, despite being well known within English rugby union and league circles since his firstseason playing in the second tier of English rugby union for Northampton (in which he scored 39 tries in 25 appearances), he has only broken into the national set up in the past 12 months. Scoring 9 times in 11 starts, he has ignited what has become an exciting back three along with Ben Foden and Mark Cueto. Ashton’s supporting play, always being on the shoulder of anyone who makes half a line-break, has caught the attention of the rugby world, and his outstanding finish against Australia in the autumn has got them talking.
Ashton, along with Northampton team-mates Foden, Lawes and Hartley form part of the core of the English team. Despite them all holding key positions in the national team, each one has yet to exceed their 26th birthday. This youthful core of the English team is completed by the likes of Ben Youngs, Tom Croft, James Haskell, Danny Care, Tom Wood, Toby Flood, the list goes on. This young group of players are going to form the basis on which not only this year’s world cup squad is based on but also 2015 and probably onto 2019 too. Whether or not they will be competitive in 2011, I would not like to say, but having witnessed a demolition of an Italian side good enough to beat the French and winning ugly games against Wales and Scotland, I believe England will be flying the flag for the Northern Hemisphere come September.
Harry Spencer is a rugby player formerly of Saracens and Bedford Blues, now living the dream in the Pyrenees playing for french second division team, Tarbes. Harry also writes a fortnightly blog at French Rugby Club. Follow Harry on twitter @harry_spencer