England Rugby – RBS 6 Nations 2016 Grand Slam Winners
As Nigel Owens blew the full time whistle at the Stade de France and Swing Low Sweet Chariot reverberated around the stadium the emotion poured out of England’s players. This time, at the end of a tournament, the England Rugby teams’ feelings were of elation and euphoria. On Saturday evening victory will have tasted even sweeter because France had turned up to the party and made England work work extremely hard to achieve the result and title.
Eight weeks earlier this squad came together at Pennyhill Park and set their ambition for the tournament ahead; to become the most dominant side in Europe. Those outside of England’s camp may have thought that after what had gone before this wasn’t realistic and was an unachievable goal. Yet, those involved knew that if they developed game-on-game and performed to their potential then England’s first Grand Slam since 2003 was eminently possible.
On a mild night in Northern Paris France saved their best until last and showed us all what we’ve been waiting to see from them. They were everything that they were not at Murrayfield or Cardiff and perhaps bit more! Vakatawa was a livewire showing that as he settles in XV aside rugby he’ll be a nightmare to handle and Scott Spedding reminded us all howe effective he can be from full-back. France’s captain Guilhem Guirado was his usual rumbustious self and scrum-half Maxime Machenaud was the epitome of a little French general and one that had packed his kicking boots. As a collective France finally found some organisation both in attack and defence and England’s nerve was tested.
When asked about the development of his side over the tournament Eddie Jones highlighted what happened after Dylan Hartley left the field on Saturday as an example of their development. He praised the leadership shown by his decision-makers George Ford and Owen Farrell. Both knew exactly what to do in order to steer England through and in their head coach’s eyes showed ‘remarkable maturity’. final minutes to victory. Of course Eddie Jones is right, Saturday evening’s Grand Slam winning performance showcased to us all his squad’s ability to not only produce the rugby required to score more points than their opposition but the strength of their character and their mental fortitude.
As with every game of rugby that were individuals that shone and areas that were particularly pleasing. Exactly like at Twickenham Stadium against Wales England’s second-row pairing were mesmeric. Both George Kruis and Maro Itoje were athletic, confrontational and mightily efficient at the set piece. England’s lineout got them out on trouble on multiple occasions and with another 100% record on their own ball it was a faultless piece of the set piece puzzle. In the back row Chris Robshaw and James Haskell were utterly unrelenting in their output and Ben Youngs’ performance off the bench was superb. Of course discipline remains a thorn in England’s side and one that they need to sort out but when the result was a hard-earned victory and a Grand Slam Title I’m loathed to pick too many holes in their output.
The importance of Saturday night’s win and finally finishing the job cannot be underestimated. The fact is that if England had lost in Paris the wind would have been taken out of their sails and their improved performances during the tournament have counted for little. Instead victory has set the tone for the months, and indeed years, to come.
There will be individuals that are saying that we’re making too much of 5 victories and one Grand Slam title given that this hasn’t been a ‘vintage’ tournament, however I firmly disagree. This England squad is young, most of their starting XVs in the tournament had an average age of 24, and they are in the infancy of learning from a new management team. There’s no denying that foundations laid by Stuart Lancaster and his team were strong ones but it’s the prospect of this squad blooming under Eddie Jones’ tutelage that fills you with excitement. The Australian’s influence on their psychology and on their output on the field of play has been impressive. In a short space of time the players are flourishing and Eddie Jones has only scratched the surface of what he wants to do with them.
With a Grand Slam Title safely in the bag England’s players will now return to their Aviva Premiership clubs for a busy domestic run-in. The schedule in unrelenting and pressured but it will be handled with the spring in their step that comes from winning silverware. Eddie Jones will use the coming weeks to asses his side’s progress so far, he’ll review all of his players and start to construct a game plan to face, and beat, Australia. During their Sunday morning team meeting the Australian implored his players to go back into the Premiership and ‘keep playing like International players’. He has charged them with the task of ensuring that they are continually the ‘best players in the competition’ and those that want to make it into his squad have to perform to the same level, it is as simple as that.
In a few short weeks England have played themselves into the history books and will take great satisfaction in being crowned the 2016 RBS 6 Nations Grand Slam Champions. After the torrid emotions and dejection that were felt a few short months ago it is a remarkable turnaround and achievement. That said their head coach will keep their feet firmly the ground because in his eyes this Grand Slam is simply a ‘nice first step’ and now they have ‘greater challenges’ ahead starting with a trip Down Under in June.