After a difficult 12 months, England turned the corner during the Rugby World Cup and optimism is plentiful ahead of the 2024 Guinness Six Nations.
After hitting rock bottom during a tricky Summer Nations Series, they rebounded with six wins from seven matches and so nearly made it all the way to the final in Paris.
For Steve Borthwick, parachuted in just nine months prior, there is plenty to build on. Young players emerged, some older ones re-discovered their form and a bronze medal – plus bragging rights for finishing as the northern hemisphere’s number one team – can be safely labelled a job well done.
The tricky part is following it up but England have an excellent record in Six Nations campaigns that follow a World Cup and will be confident of putting together a Championship challenge, even if France and Ireland remain the favourites.
While for many teams, the World Cup marks the end of an era, for England it could well mark the start of a new one.
WORLD CUP PERFORMANCE
Considering England had a poor Summer Nations Series, they deserve credit for almost making it to the World Cup final.
England 2024 Guinness Six Nations tickets
They navigated a tricky pool, fended off a spirited Fiji in the quarter-finals and then pushed South Africa to the brink in the last four.
It all started with George Ford, who slotted drop goals for fun in a morale-boosting 27-10 opening-game win against Argentina, before a bonus-point 34-12 win against Japan all but sealed a knock-out place.
Chile were comfortably beaten 71-0, thanks largely to five tries from Henry Arundell, but their last pool game against Samoa was uncomfortably close and the Pacific Islanders will be frustrated they did not win, as England snuck home 18-17.
The quarter-finals brought a re-match with Fiji, who memorably beat England in the Summer Nations Series, and England made an excellent start by jumping out to a 21-10 half-time lead thanks to tries from Manu Tuilagi and Joe Marchant.
However, Fiji clawed their way back into the game in the second half, and England needed captain Owen Farrell to settle things with a drop goal and late penalty to secure victory and a place in the last four.
As underdogs, England had little to lose against defending champions South Africa and they produced perhaps their best display of the tournament. Physical, disciplined and tactically sound, they frustrated the Springboks and took advantage of their mistakes to eke out a narrow lead.
At 15-6 up midway through the second half, the final seemingly beckoned, before the introduction of the fabled South Africa ‘bomb squad’ turned the tide, especially at scrum time. Ox Nche had arguably the most impactful 20 minutes of his career as South Africa won penalty after penalty at the set-piece, allowing them to turn the screw.
The pressure eventually told as RG Snyman’s try and Handre Pollard’s boot completed a dramatic turnaround – with Pollard’s 78th-minute penalty from near halfway ultimately decisive.
A second meeting with Argentina followed in the bronze final, where England edged to a 26-23 win.
It’s strange to make a case for a 25-cap player being the find of the tournament, but after years on the fringes, Ben Earl established himself as England’s first-choice No.8.
The Saracens back-rower may lack the power of Billy Vunipola but he carried brilliantly, has an exciting burst of pace and is a menace at the breakdown. Henry Arundell’s five tries against Chile was a thrilling window into what he could become, even if he barely touched the ball against Argentina in the third-place play-off, while Alex Mitchell was impressive at scrum-half.
While Courtney Lawes, Jonny May, Elliot Daly and George Ford all shone, Borthwick will be most excited by the World Cup debutants who looked at home on the biggest stage, and in the likes of Ollie Chessum, George Martin and Freddie Steward, he has a nucleus to build around.
As is normal at the end of a World Cup, several players have brought the curtain down on their international careers.
Scrum-half Ben Youngs departs after 13 years and 127 caps, the most by an England Men’s player, and his experience will be sorely missed. Courtney Lawes was excellent at the World Cup and leaves at the top of his game. Like Youngs, Lawes was part of the 2016 Grand Slam-winning squad and also captained England 12 times.
Jonny May has also departed the scene after scoring 36 tries in 78 Tests, including 14 in the Guinness Six Nations. Other established internationals, such as Danny Care, Dan Cole and Joe Marler, also face uncertain international futures.
England have worked hard to blood new players in the past two seasons and Steve Borthwick will hope that pays dividends in the Guinness Six Nations.
Jack van Poortvliet, the first-choice scrum-half until an ankle injury ruled him out of the World Cup, is hoping to return, while the likes of Martin and Arundell should see increasing game-time.
The wing is an area of intrigue, especially now May has retired, and Tom Roebuck of Sale Sharks and Ollie Hassell-Collins of Leicester Tigers will hope to earn call-ups, while Adam Radwan has been on the periphery for the past two years. Tom Pearson and Zach Mercer are interesting back-row options.
GUINNESS SIX NATIONS PROSPECTS
England have a strong track record following World Cups. They won the Grand Slam in 2016 and then emerged as champions in 2020 on points difference.
France and Ireland will surely start as favourites but if England can start fast by beating Italy in Rome and Wales at Twickenham – two teams who are rebuilding – then momentum and confidence will surely follow.
Round 3’s trip to Scotland is the key fixture and may define whether England can be title contenders again. Recent history is not kind, with Scotland winning the last three Calcutta Cup matches and England are on the back foot in a fixture they used to dominate.
Ireland visit Twickenham in what could be a mouth-watering Round 4 meeting, before England head to Lyon for Super Saturday – and a game which should have major repercussions for the title one way or another, and maybe even the Grand Slam.
2024 GUINNESS SIX NATIONS FIXTURES
February 3: Italy v England, Stadio Olimpico, Kick-off 2.15pm (3.125pm local)
February 10: England v Wales, Twickenham, Kick-off 4.45pm
February 24: Scotland v England, Scottish Gas Murrayfield, Kick-off 4.45pm
March 9: England v Ireland, Twickenham, Kick-off 4.45pm
March 16: France v England, Parc Olympique Lyonnais, Kick-off 8pm (9pm local)