Simon Cromie, Joseph McKay and Jean Verdon discuss all things Six Nations in this special Elephant Sport podcast, while Welsh rugby journalist Huw Richards offers his expert opinion on Warren Gatland’s side.
Our resident Irishman, Scotsman and Frenchman also cast an eye towards the Rugby World Cup which takes place in Japan later this year, and ponder whether the ongoing Six Nations can provide some telling clues as to which side might triumph in the Autumn.
A summer Test series turnover to South Africa seems inescapable unless England address the many factors that led to their Six Nations slump.
In the final round of fixtures, Eddie Jones’s team lost 15-24 to champions Ireland at Twickenham, and ended up finishing a lowly fifth in the table.
But even beating the Irish to pour cold water on their St Patrick’s Day and Grand Slam parade would only have papered over the problems that England currently face.
As it was, Jonny May’s last-minute try was not enough to spare the blushes of the lacklustre hosts who, across the tournament, could only amass 10 points more on the pitch than whipping boys Italy.
A crisis? Jones and his players don’t seem to think so, and I’m inclined to agree with them, so long as the debilitating issues that led to England’s worst finish in 41 years are addressed – and quickly.
Despite Sir Clive Woodward’s claims that England are now “staring down the barrel”, a summer resurgence against the Springboks is well within the realms of possibility. But the amendments and adjustments needed are four-fold.
An imperative product of any successful breakdown; however England’s ruck was comprehensively pulverised during this tournament, pilling immense pressure on the distribution of scrum-halves Danny Care and the returning Richard Wigglesworth, who had a torrid time against the Irish.
The decision to field an ebbing James Haskell was met with hostility from fans. As Jones plots to turn water into wine come June, he should look no further than 21-year-old open side Sam Underhill, who is expected to make his return for the SA series.
Although the ruck showed slight improvement against the Irish, it was still a far cry from the standard needed to see off the Springboks – and to stand any chance of beating New Zealand at the 2019 World Cup in Japan.
If the sound captured by referee Arund Gardner’s mic is to be trusted, the need for better discipline is a sentiment England captain Dylan Hartley shares.
Cries of “Discipline!” could be heard from the Saints hooker as he watched his side yet again make basic errors in transition and with ball in hand.
The Red Roses continued their Six Nation trend of ragged unruliness, but added an absence of composure against the Irish. This impacted on the scoreline, with England giving a way far too many penalties in all thirds, allowing a pressure lapse and the visitors to effectively pull their socks up.
England’s ability to finish a game strongly quickly becomes null and void if they trudge to the changing room 16 points down at the break. And although one of Jones’ best qualities is his ability to galvanise a squad, the discipline problem is as May suggested “an individual thing”, and improving it depends on strength of character.
A backline make-over
The decision to drop George Ford and rotate the backline came with no overwhelming improvement to the fluency of midfield play. England’s running lines were very basic and predictable, giving very little option for Farrell to imprint on the game in Twickenham’s biting winds.
Jones does, however, admit to be flirting with the idea of introducing a specialist backs coach, but the problem stretches beyond that to the need for succinct passing moves and outside running lines.
Ireland’s defence seldom looked like cracking against the English, with Ben Te’o left bewildered and the dynamic centre position a real problem.
But whisper it quietly, Manu Tuilagi’s Leicester form appears to be carrying some sort of international promise. And should he be included (if fit) in the summer, a centre of such ferocious stature with such an ability to commit defenders as he does, should go some way to fixing the problem.
Rest and recuperation
A hangover from the 2017 British & Irish Lions tour was inevitable. The statistics corroborate this, with England’s previous string of three defeats following the 2005 Lions Tour, and they went on to lose six consecutively.
The tumult and exhaustion of this year’s Six Nations campaign was transparent, with England’s Lions having played as much as double the club rugby as their Welsh, Irish and Scottish counterparts, resulting in increased calls for centralised contracts in the days following the Irish invasion.
Calls that will come to no avail, however, as the RFU’s current deal with the Aviva Premiership detailing club control over players, runs until 2024, meaning the boys will have to just suck it up.
The good news is, Jones seems to be entertaining the idea of resting some of his Lions this summer, which bodes well for the future of young talent and the development of the team.
England’s defeat to the Irish was not for lack of effort, but they looked sapped of all sustained intensity needed to compete on an international stage.
The media talked up the team’s regression, but a lot of this was just hyperbole. But coming in a week when Jones’ disparaging comments at a sponsor’s event about the “scummy Irish” came to light, it was apt that Joe Schmidt’s men underlined their status as Europe’s power players.
2016 has been yet another fantastic year of sport, one well worth celebrating, be it the remarkable story of the underdog or persistent dominance at the top level.
Below are Elephant Sport’s top five teams of the year, which range from the record breaking Team GB Women’s Hockey squad, how a rugby-loving nation went football mad and the fairytale story of Leicester City.
5) Mercedes F1; the continuing domination
The Mercedes F1 team sealed their third successive double of Constructors’ and Drivers’ World Championships in 2016.
The team clinched both accolades in 2014 and 2015, and now 2016 when the constructor’s crown was sealed in Japan and Nico Rosberg clinched the driver’s title, in the last race of the season at Abu-Dhabi.
Not only are Mercedes on a fantastic run spanning three years, in 2016 they managed to break several records on the way.
The German works team won a record 19 of the 21 races in the season, helping them to notch up another record; an impressive tally of 765 points in a single campaign.
They also bagged the most poles in a season; 20, one away from a whole season of Mercedes poles.
Their 10 consecutive race wins could have been another history-maker; if Lewis Hamilton’s engine wouldn’t have failed in Malaysia (effectively costing him the drivers trophy), Mercedes would have 16 consecutive race wins.
“Making history along the way and re-writing the record books, what we’ve achieved together is mind-blowing”
After helping to secure the constructors championship with a win in Japan, Rosberg said: “I’ve been here since day one of this project in 2010 and it’s really phenomenal the journey we’ve taken together towards being the best team in Formula 1.
“Making history along the way and re-writing the record books, what we’ve achieved together is mind-blowing and I’m really proud to have played my small part in that”
The standards Mercedes have set in 2016 will take some beating.
4) England’s rugby union winning streak
A year on from the disappointment of a dismal home World Cup, England rugby union’s squad completed a perfect 2016, equalling their record of 14 successive wins, set in 2003.
Eddie Jones’s side equalled that mark by achieving their highest ever score over rivals Australia at Twickenham; a 37-21 win on December 3.
England can surpass their current record in February 2017, when they face France at Twickenham in the RBS Six Nations opening fixture.
Since Jones’s arrival in November 2015, England have made tremendous progress, with a Six Nations Grand Slam, a whitewash of Australia in the summer Test series down under, and a first win in a decade against South Africa.
According to the wily Australian, “10-15 English players” could feature in the 2017 British & Irish Lions tour to New Zealand.
“We are not looking at records, just the next game. But we can draw a line under this year with a good victory against a quality side [Australia],” England captain Dylan Hartley told BBC 5 Live.
“I’m very proud of the guys over the last few weeks, and it’s nice to go back to our clubs knowing we have done English rugby and the shirt proud.
“We leave it in a good place until the Six Nations,” added Hartley.
3) Wales impress at Euro 2016
A rugby-loving nation went football mad over the summer, when the Welsh national side qualified for their first major tournament since 1958 and outstandingly reached their first ever major semi-final.
More than half the population watched the Euro 2016 semi-final defeat to Portugal, beating the record set for a sporting event, which was in fact only previously set by the Welsh in their Euro 2016 quarter final victory over Belgium.
It was only five years ago that Wales were ranked 117 in the world, and in 2016 they finish an impressive 12th according to Fifa’s rankings; one place above England.
Thanks to their successful surge, Wales were seeded for the 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign, which could set them in a great position to qualifying for only their third major finals next year.
Star man Gareth Bale has also been nominated for the 2016 Footballer of the Year award. The Real Madrid striker scored three goals at Euro 2016, making him Wales’ all-time top goal scorer in major tournaments.
“When you start playing around with the top 10, that’s a good feeling”
Wales manager Chris Coleman told the Evening Standard that after 2016’s success the nation must “not get carried away”.
“We have had some dark times when we have dropped outside the top 100. So when you start playing around with the top 10, that’s a good feeling.
“But there’s a different kind of pressure on us, we can’t be ‘plucky old Wales’. People will expect us to deliver.”
2) Team GB Women’s hockey gold
At the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio, Team GB’s women’s hockey squad became history-makers by winning the nation’s first-ever female field hockey gold.
Danny Kerry’s squad were huge underdogs when they faced the Netherlands in the final.
The Dutch comfortably won gold in both the 2008 Olympics (Beijing) and 2012 (London). They were also ranked number one in the world.
The final finished 3-3 in normal time, with Britain’s keeper Maddie Hinch making a string of remarkable saves.
And the Dutch could not beat Hinch in the resulting shootout, which Britain won 2-0. Helen Richardson-Walsh and Hollie Webb scored the decisive penalties to seal a famous victory.
Captain Kate Richardson-Walsh and wife Helen Richardson-Walsh became the first married couple to win gold for Britain since Cyril and Dorothy Wright in the sailing in 1920.
“That will change the face of British hockey”
After the game former Team GB men’s hockey bronze medallist Simon Moore told the BBC: “I am genuinely struggling to put this result into words.
“GB were under pressure for huge chunks but we thought if it went to penalties we could win. Fair play to Maddie Hinch, just incredible.
“That will change the face of British hockey.”
And according to the University of the Arts hockey president Dhalyn Warren, the sport has already seen a huge “rise in participation”.
1) Leicester City; Premier League Champions
In at number one; the greatest underdog story of all time; in May 2016 Leicester City were remarkably and deservedly crowned champions of England, and not one of us predicted it.
Having pulled in manager Claudio Ranieri, sacked from the Greece national side in November 2014, the whole of England expected to see Leicester relegated back to the Championship from which they were promoted in 2014; especially after flirting with relegation in 2015.
The Foxes are now in the elite club of only six sides to have won the Premier League since its inception in 1992.
A number of newspapers described their title win as the greatest sporting upset of all time. Not forgetting the huge record pay outs by the bookmakers on early-season odds of 5,000-1.
Star striker Jamie Vardy also broke a record; scoring 11 goals in 11 consecutive league games. Vardy was also the ninth player to score 20 top flight goals in a season.
Ranieri’s side had the fewest away defeats in any top flight season; defeated only twice on their travels. The club produced a further record for the most consecutive wins in the top flight (five).
The club have also continued their underdog story; successfully progressing into the Champions League knock-out stages.
Former Foxes midfielder Robbie Savage told the BBC: “I’m speechless, it is unbelievable. I’ve seen England win the Ashes and get OBEs and MBEs.
“This Leicester team’s achievement is greater than any of that. They should be recognised in the honours list”
Overall the fairytale of Leicester City makes this side, the team of the year for 2016.
Last weekend saw England emerge 37-21 winners over a slightly lackadaisical South Africa side.
They know they could have performed better, but let’s not take that away from the result. England were determined to dominate, and they did.
It was the first time England had beaten the Springboks in over a decade. The list below shows the past 10 results between the sides before Saturday’s clash.
Nov 2014: England 28-31 South Africa, Twickenham
Nov 2012: England 15-16 South Africa, Twickenham
Jun 2012: South Africa 14-14 England, Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium
Jun 2012: South Africa 36-27 England, Ellis Park
Jun 2012: South Africa 22-17 England, Kings Park
Nov 2010: England 11-21 South Africa, Twickenham
Nov 2008: England 6-42 South Africa, Twickenham
Oct 2007: England 6-15 South Africa, Stade de France
Sep 2007: England 0-36 South Africa, Stade de France
Jun 2007: South Africa 55-22 England, Loftus
England were slow to get out of the blocks, going 0-6 down within the first 10 minutes. However a swift and free-flowing counter-attack allowed Jonny May to do what he does best and finish in the corner.
From then on, England kicked on and were superior to the Springboks in nearly every aspect – not something which is normally seen in games between northern and southern hemisphere sides.
In terms of attacking statistics, England made 451 metres throughout the match, compared to the Springboks 395m. England also made nine clean breaks, to South Africa’s four, the pick of the bunch being Ben Youngs’ dummy passes to set up both George Ford and Owen Farrell.
England also displayed a great defensive mindset; something that head coach Eddie Jones is keen to implement throughout the XV, the most important thing being that you have to put your body on the line for the team.
A key statistic in this respect was England’s nine turnovers at the breakdown compared to South Africa’s four. Watching the game, you could see that the team in white would do everything and anything to get the ball back.
However, the only visible downside to England’s game was the penalty count they racked up, conceding 11 in total. It’s something that Jones evidently wasn’t pleased about, as shown by his post-match comment that England can get a lot better.
Skipper Dylan Hartley backed up the Aussie, saying: “There’s plenty to work on, so that keeps us grounded. We conceded six penalties in the opening 20 minutes and that isn’t good enough.”
Man of the match
The standout performer was Youngs; he was everywhere he could possibly be on the pitch and had the vision to spot the break in the line not once, but twice to set up Ford and Farrell.
A new week, a new challenge
This weekend brings a new challenge in the form of Fiji, regular so-called whipping boys who will be wanting to make an impression in front of 80,000 fans at Twickenham on Saturday.
Draining the talent pool
One of the many reasons that Fiji, Tonga and Samoa haven’t managed to excel as much as they would have wanted is that their talented pool of players is often raided by other rugby nations.
Take Manu Tuilagi; when fully fit and on the top of his game, he is unstoppable, showing this against New Zealand a couple of years ago.
Although he and a few of his brothers had dual nationality, playing for England would be a much more lucrative opportunity than a Pacific Island team.
To put into perspective why many of these players adopt other nations over Fiji for example, just look at how much players are getting paid for this match in the Autumn internationals series.
Nathan Hughes, who was actually born in Fiji, will take home £22,000 playing for England, while his former countrymen receive just £400 each.
But it’s not all doom and gloom for the Fijians.
They have had something to be ecstatic about this year, winning their first-ever Olympic medal – gold in the rugby sevens tournament, beating Great Britain in the process.
It wasn’t a tight game in the slightest, with Fiji trouncing GB 43-7 in the final in Rio.
Although sevens is a very different game, Jones will be wary as to what could potentially unfold over 80 minutes.
Fiji’s danger men
Centre Vereniki Goneva should be well known to England fans, having played for Leicester Tigers between 2012 and 2016and scoring 205 points in the process.
In the 2015–16 European Rugby Champions Cup, he scored a try in every game finishing with six in five matches in the knockout rounds, making him the competition’s joint top try-scorer alongside Thomas Waldrom.
Lock Leone Nakawara currently plays for Racing 92 in France, and was one of the players who won an Olympic sevens medal at Rio 2016, scoring a try in the final in a one-sided 43-7 victory over Great Britain.
During his time at Glasgow Warriors, Nakarawa was named man of the match for in the 2015 Pro12 Grand Final in Belfast. He had the most offloads in the 2014–15 European Rugby Champions Cup with 25.
Fly-half Ben Volavola is, perhaps surprisingly, the youngest player in the current squad at 25. He signed for the Crusaders in the 2016 Super Rugby season to replace a number 10 exodus at the New Zealand club, with Dan Carter, Colin Slade and Tom Taylor having moved to play their rugby in Europe.
During his three-year stint at the Southern Districts side, he racked up 248 points in 36 appearances.
In the six matches the teams have played against each other, England have never lost to Fiji, racking up 245 points to their 94. The largest win came in 2012 when England demolished them 54-12.
Jones knows all about upsets though, pulling off arguably the biggest one in international rugby history when his Japan team beat South Africa at the 2015 World Cup.
A repeat is unlikely on Saturday, but Jones is too wily and experienced a coach to take anything for granted.
This time last year, Eddie Jones had just done the unthinkable. He had led a cast of nobodies (no disrespect intended to Japan) to victory over South Africa in the World Cup – arguably the biggest shock in rugby union’s history.
Now he finds himself with the best winning percentage as an England head coach since Sir Clive Woodward, with a 100% record.
Who would have thought England, a team who capitulated as World Cup hosts under Stuart Lancaster, would begin a new era under Jones with nine wins out of nine.
It is time for England fans to truly believe something big is happening.
With England still the only Northern Hemisphere team to have won the World Cup, beating Australia in their own backyard in 2003, many thought that finest hour was unrepeatable.
Fair enough, that they made the final in France 2007, but they were humbled by Saturday’s opponents South Africa. However, this clash has a build-up that’s completely different to that game nine years ago.
Time to take advantage
England come into this game looking like one of the best teams in the world right now.
Ireland’s sensational 40-29 win over New Zealand in Chicago last weekend showed the All Blacks do actually have some weaknesses, and it’s time for England to take advantage.
England go into the autumn internationals ranked the second-best team in the world, and it is up to them to make the biggest statement possible.
This will be one of Eddie Jones’ biggest tests.
The build-up to these matches has certainly been a tough one, and England’s summer whitewashing of Australia down under has created great expectations.
Jones will be without Manu Tuilagi, James Haskell, Sam Jones and Anthony Watson – all out of the picture with long-term injuries.
Let’s also not forget that player of the year last year, Maro Itoje is out too, as are Jack Nowell and George Kruis. It’s nothing short of an injury crisis, for sure.
Although England have amazing depth in many positions, there is no denying that the players out injured would have had a key role this autumn. Watson, for one, has scored 70 points in 24 games.
Jones has had to rethink his strategy, drafting in Wasps’ Elliot Daly for his full Test debut at outside centre, Jonathan Joseph being dropped in the process. This is a clear statement from Jones, who who has previously said he will do what is necessary to get the win.
Jones has also said in the buildup to Saturday’s Twickenham clash: “I told the players…. If you are not physical you need to play volleyball – rugby is a physical sport.”
It’s clear to see what Jones expects from his players in the face of the famed brute force of the Springboks.
Mako Vunipola has voiced the ideology that Jones has enforced, saying:“The biggest message is not being happy with where we are at the moment, we have to keep improving every time we go out on the pitch. We want to improve every day.”
This just goes to show how much has happened with the team since the dreadful World Cup campaign just over a year ago.
This is a different England side that are not afraid to be physical, who want to be the best, and know they can achieve their aim.
Jones has instantly made his mark, bringing in experienced faces to his coaching staff, something that made a big story under Lancaster’s reign, for the wrong reasons.
He has had short-term input for his backs from Australian legend Glen Ella, George Smith has been helping out the back rows, and the fly-halves from England legend Jonny Wilkinson.
The effect that both Jones’ strengthening of the England team, and the success of clubs such as Saracens, has seen an amazing improvement.
Take into account that only two English players were shortlisted for the IRB’s World Rugby Player of the year in the past 12 years; this year there are three alone.
“With South Africa in a fragile state of mind, England can get off to a flyer”
Itoje, Billy Vunipola and Owen Farrell have all been nominated, following their stellar performances at international and club level.
The matches against South Africa, Fiji, Argentina and Australia are the perfect opportunity for England to show what they are really about, that the Jones honeymoon isn’t over just yet.
With South Africa in a fragile state of mind, England can get off to a flyer.
Many fans will be licking their lips at this clash, and it’s clear that England fans finally have something to smile about.
Depending on the outcome of these matches and next year’s Six Nations, people will be starting to ask whether 2019, when Japan host the World Cup, could be England’s year.
But let it sink in that when that World Cup comes around, it will have been 16 years since we triumphed over Australia.