The enduring appeal of the Six Nations Championship is in its unpredictability and over the years perhaps no team has suffered more from the its fluctuations than England. Having secured their first championship since 2011 thanks to Scotland’s victory over France last weekend, nothing less than a first Grand Slam since 2003 will satisfy England.
Victory against Les Bleus at the Stade de France would mean just a second Grand Slam in 21 years for the English and, as players from previous failed attempts will attest, the final hurdle has often proved an insurmountable obstacle. Twice in the last five editions of the tournament England have entered the final round of fixtures favourites to complete the clean sweep. Twice they have returned from road losses with their dreams in tatters as Ireland in 2011 and Wales two years later upset the odds.
Further back in the history of the competition, England entered the final round of fixtures as strong favourites to complete the Grand Slam every season from 1999 to 2001. On each occasion they came up empty-handed. Scott Gibbs’ late try and Neil Jenkins’ conversion on a sunny evening at Wembley handed the last ever Five Nations title to Scotland in ‘99 as Wales spoiled the party with a come-from-behind 32-31 win. In 2000, the championship was scant consolation when England’s Grand Slam dream was washed away at a rain-soaked Murrayfield as Scotland secured a 19-13 win. A year later they waited six months to secure the slam as the Championship was disrupted by an outbreak of foot and mouth disease in the UK, only to find Ireland in inspired form in the late autumnal chill.
Securing the Championship with a game to spare this time around will undoubtedly alleviate the pain of some of England’s near-misses. Over the last two campaigns England have missed out on the title on points differential by a combined 17 points. Essentially two converted tries and a penalty have stood between England and three straight Six Nations titles in 2014, ’15 and ’16.
As the final round of the 2016 Six Nations approaches, England have overwhelmingly outperformed Saturday’s opponents in terms of offensive production. Eddie Jones’ team has out-scored Guy Noves’ France by 50 points over their first four games, and scored ten tries to France’s seven. England’s points differential of 52 is just nine less that France’s total points scored. England’s average margin of victory has been 13 points, although that was inflated by a scintillating second half demolition of Italy en-route to a 40-9 thumping.
The French total margin of victory over their two victories so far has been just three points. However, France can draw on the fact they sit behind only Ireland in terms of meters gained per game through carries (710.2) and lead the tournament for total offloads (56). Furthermore, there are signs that in the heat of battle England can be rattled, just as they were in last year’s World Cup. England have been the least disciplined side in the 2016 Six Nations, conceding 51 penalties and a tournament-high three yellow cards. That may prove costly and decisive this weekend.
While England are 3 to 1 on in most bookmakers to claim the Slam, it is worth noting that they have lost three of their last four games in Paris. That said, England have come out on top in eight of the last twelve meetings between the sides.
Jones, in his first season in charge, has spoken to the veterans of England’s recent missteps to get a sense of what lies in store in Paris on Saturday.
“I went around and talked to a couple of the players who had experienced those Grand Slam opportunities and asked if there was anything we could learn from them,” he told the RFU website.
“The underlying thought was you can never underestimate an opposition team in Test match rugby.”
England are prohibitive favourites going into Saturday’s game, and yet, as players of the recent past can tell Jones, finishing the job is easier said than done.
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