England celebrate 'ugly' Six Nations win
Ben Te'o leads the way as Eddie Jones's men smash France to set new national record
"The performance was ugly," said England coach Eddie Jones after Saturday's Six Nations triumph. "But the result is beautiful."
That result, a 19-16 conquest of France, extended England's winning streak to 15 matches, a new record for the men in white that surpasses the previous tally of 14 set during the Clive Woodward era in 2002-03.
Yet none of England's 15 victories have been as undeserved as the one at a cold, raw Twickenham when, for long stretches of the match, the hosts were outplayed by their visitors.
If France had taken just a couple of the chances they created in the first half, they might have been out of sight by the break, but they were characteristically sloppy in converting their try-scoring opportunities, and England were able to go into the break at nine points apiece.
Although France scored the first try of the game on the hour mark when substitute prop Rabah Slimani charged over, England didn't panic. They made use of their stronger bench, introducing hooker Jamie George, flanker James Haskell, scrum-half Danny Care and centre Ben Te'o, all of whom added impetus to England's sluggish first hour.
it was Te'o who scored the crucial try 10 minutes from time, crashing over the line after Haskell bulldozed aside a couple of French defenders.
"We weren't our usual urgent selves, and maybe I've got to look at the preparation I gave the team," said Jones. "I felt some players were still in their club mentality so that's something we need to work on."
But the mark of a good side is that they can win while still playing badly – and England did just that, which will send them to Cardiff next weekend in good spirits. "We dug in, we found a way and we'll take something from that," said Jones, whose team were last beaten in October 2015, that time by Australia.
Turning to Saturday's encounter in Cardiff, where England have won just 40 per cent of their Six Nations matches, Jones said: "I can't work out why the record of England in Wales is so poor… There seems to be some sort of thing there.
"No one can tell me why the English are petrified of playing Wales in Wales. I will talk to a few blokes to figure out what the problem is and why the record is so horrendous, because it is horrendous.”
Wales also began their Six Nations with a win but failed to take a bonus point against Italy – and for the first 40 minutes they looked like a team who might leave Rome empty-handed.
Italy were the better side in a scrappy first-half, their try coming when Edoardo Gori opening scoring on 29 minutes. Trailing 7-3 at the interval, Wales came out a different side in the second period, scoring 30 unanswered points, including tries from Jonathan Davies, Liam Williams and George North.
The game of the weekend was Scotland's 27-22 defeat of Ireland, who along with England were the pre-tournament favourites. It was the first time the Scots have won on the first day of the Six Nations since 2006, and coach Vern Cotter believes it will stand them in good stead when they play France in Paris on Sunday.
"It has been a while since we won the first game of the Six Nations so that will change the dynamic," he said. "I think the players will decide what they want to do from here."
But Cotter, who coached French side Clermont before being appointed Scotland boss, warned: "The feet will be on the ground very quickly, and we need to back it up against France next week."
Unbeaten England adopt 'daring' gameplan for Six Nations
England last lost to France at Twickenham in the Six Nations in 2005 and the reigning Grand Slam champions are strong favourites to continue their winning streak tomorrow afternoon as this year's tournament begins. Injuries have had a strong influence on Eddie Jones' selections but such is the strength in depth in English rugby the head coach was still able to name a formidable XV.
Maro Itoje, England's outstanding player in 2016 and normally a lock, makes his first international start at blind-side flanker, while Courtney Lawes partners Joe Launchbury in the second row following the withdrawal earlier in the week of George Kruis.
There's also a chance for 24-year-old Elliot Daly to make amends for the red card he received in November's win against Argentina, the Wasps centre being picked on the wing in place of Jack Nowell.
In all there are eight changes to the XV that started last season's Six Nations match against France, but the visitors have also been forced through injury to shuffle their line-up. If the loss of number eight Billy Vunipola is England's biggest disadvantage, for France it's the absence of Wesley Fofana, their one world-class back. He ruptured his Achilles tendon last month and is replaced by 22-year-old Gael Fickou, while there's a Six Nations debut for scrum-half Baptiste Serin, who is gifted but raw at Test level.
"In rugby terms you've traditionally got two contrasting styles - French flair and England's dogged conservative approach," explained Eddie Jones. "But we want to be absolutely daring against the French in this first game and set the standard for the tournament."
In truth, French flair disappeared around the time the sport went professional in 1995, and in recent years Les Bleus have based their game more on power than panache. Admittedly there's been a softening of style under Guy Noves, who was appointed head coach at the end of 2015, the same time as Jones took charge of England.
But it's taking time for France to revert to their old ways, and last year while England won all 14 of their Tests, the French managed just four victories in ten Tests, and two of those against Samoa and Italy.
If England carry last year's form into 2017 they will win comfortably, although they will probably have to withstand a ferocious French onslaught in the opening quarter. But with superior fitness, better technical skills and a proven goal-kicker, the hosts should start the defence of their title with a win. With the weather forecast promising wind and rain, a good kicking game will be crucial and in that regard England, with George Ford and Owen Farrell, are in far stronger position than France.
This season's tournament, which will include bonus points for the first time, begins in Edinburgh with Scotland hosting Ireland. The last time the Scots opened a Six Nations campaign with a win was 2006 (when they beat France) but they'll fancy their chances of ending that appalling record against an Ireland side missing Jonathan Sexton. The talismanic fly-half is out with a calf injury, and although Paddy Jackson is an able deputy, Sexton brings a control and intelligence to the Irish game that will be sorely missed at Murrayfield.
In the other match, Italy host Wales in Rome on Sunday, a match that is likely to go a long way in deciding who collects this year's Wooden Spoon. Italy, who have finished bottom in 2016, have a new coach in Irishman Conor O'Shea, but although they beat a poor South Africa in November, they also lost to Tonga. Wales also endured a mixed bag of results in the autumn, beating the Springboks, but losing heavily to Australia and just doing enough to edge out Japan and Argentina without ever looking convincing.
Six Nations: England and Ireland favourites as Lions roar
The Six Nations returns this weekend, with plenty of storylines waiting to unfold and Lions coach Warren Gatland watching the action ahead of the summer trip to New Zealand.
England go into the tournament unbeaten under new coach Eddie Jones and Ireland are on a high after becoming the first nation to beat the All Blacks, Australia and South Africa in a season since 2003.
Scotland are also emerging as dark horses, Wales and France will be desperate to arrest their recent slumps and Italy will be on their annual mission to register a win.
Ireland are the pick of the bunch according to The Guardian, whose panel of experts backs them to lift the trophy, with the final weekend clash against England in Dublin predicted to be crucial.
It will be intriguing to see how Jones reacts to defeat if his side are finally beaten during the tournament, says John Westerby in The Times.
The England boss is a calmer more reflective coach than he was a few years ago, adds the journalist, but how he and his side cope with defeat and the ensuing media post mortem will be intriguing.
"Jones and his players have stepped up on every occasion," he says "But the sterner test, in how they react when they have fallen short, is yet to come. Perhaps England need to lose a game soon so that they can get to know their colourful head coach just a little better."
If England make it back-to-back Grand Slams, they will beat New Zealand's 18-match winning streak, which was ended by Ireland last year, and strike another blow for European rugby ahead of the Lions tour this summer.
A year ago, the trip to New Zealand was regarded as a suicide mission, but that was before the autumn internationals, which saw the northern hemisphere get one over on the south for once.
"In the space of little over 12 months the air of despondency hanging over the north has been blown away," says Daniel Schofield of the Daily Telegraph. "Unusually, all the teams are entering the Six Nations with a real sense of confidence and purpose after an autumn series in which roles were reversed."
Even former All Blacks skipper Richie McCaw admits "there's nothing between the north and south any more".
That optimism only adds to the belief that the Six Nations "will double up as a high-octane trial" for the Lions tour, says Mitch Phillips of Reuters.
However, in the short term, the Six Nations sides have to prepare for the opening weekend of games and several coaches face injury problems. England and Jones could be without George Kruis, who suffered a knee injury in training, while fellow lock Maro Itoje is set to start a Test in the back row for the first time, covering for Chris Robshaw, says the BBC.
Ireland could be without fly-half Johnny Sexton, while Wales are expected to be missing Taulupe Faletau and Luke Charteris.