By Tadhg Peavoy
After decimating Ireland at Twickenham in last year's Six Nations and making New Zealand look ordinary at the same venue in December, this England squad really is capable of being exceptional.
With its tail up the Red Rose becomes an arrogant beast that dominates and brutalises their opposition – in a good way - as Stuart Lancaster has been slowly building a very capable side over the last year.
His team were far from complete when they cut down Scotland and Italy early on in last year’s Six Nations, as defeat to Wales in their next match displayed. But they showed mental fortitude to come back from that defeat to squeeze past France in Paris and easily dispose of Ireland.
However, England looked devoid of ideas and empty on originality when they recorded two defeats and a draw on their three-Test summer tour of South Africa.
A hammering of a very poor Fiji was followed by two narrow defeats to Australia and South Africa in the autumn.
But just when things appeared to be coming apart at the seams, England delivered the upset of the entire rugby union season when they beat New Zealand 38-21 in their final Test of 2012.
That mental fortitude was back; they had been roundly hung out to dry by the English press – as is the custom of the fourth estate in that nation – but clearly maintained their self-belief and damaged New Zealand.
Their performance was stellar and they executed all the things a team must do to hurt the All Blacks.
They played fast, error-free, inventive rugby, while also being incredibly physical in the pack and putting New Zealand under constant pressure when the southern hemisphere side had the ball.
However, the All Blacks squad was believed to have been suffering with the norovirus for the previous week and were dehydrated and not fully recovered or prepared for the match with England.
Whether they were fit or not might never be known. But England took their chance and will come into the spring brimming with confidence.
Plenty of strength around the pitch
Outhalf Owen Farrell’s nomination for IRB Player of the Year was a strange one. Yes, he is good, can kick to beat the band, and has so much potential, but Player of the Year? That was a stretch.
That said, when he plays well, generally so do England. His kicking is improving all the time, and he possesses a ruggedness and determination reminiscent of Jonny Wilkinson in his pomp. A good tournament for Farrell is key to a good tournament for England.
However, his position at number ten is not tacked on, with Toby Flood also looking to start at stand-off. Lancaster has a big call to make as to who should start against Scotland in their opening clash on 2 February.
Outside Farrell, England have so much talent.
Brad Barritt and Manu Tuilagi are a very intriguing centre pairing that combine the very traditional sturdy No.12, with the creative No.13. They look like a fine partnership so far.
Outside them again, Chris Ashton is a fine finisher. He has many critics, but there are few players who have a better sense of where the tryline is.
Mike Brown and Alex Goode both offer a huge threat in the back three, while fit-again Ben Foden is also back in the squad and vying for selection.
Against New Zealand the England backs got plenty of solid possession, and thrived on it. This came from solid set-pieces and rucks, while in the clash with Ireland last St Patrick’s Day, it was from the scrum that England established their dominance.
When these platforms of possession set, Lancaster’s team puts into effect a direct running, dynamic gameplan, which suits them so well.
Can they deliver under pressure?
But like New Zealand, the way to beat England is to disrupt their game plan and to anger them. This causes their team unity to ebb away and with it their confidence.
The Red Rose loves an arm wrestle, but they can often be out-thought by the opposition because they get too involved in trench warfare and lose their composure.
To bring about this self-doubt in England, their scrum must be tested and challenged, and the opposition’s rucking must be ferocious.
Outside the pack, they have a very physical approach to defence. Brain as well as brawn must be employed to find a way around it, not to mention through it.
A critical junction for England
The great England sides of old - like the 2003 Rugby World Cup-winning team - combined a behemoth pack with a wily, superb place-kicker and a devastatingly fast back line.
This current crop of England players seem to have the embryo to form such a team. Whether they can grow into the real deal remains to be seen.
This Six Nations will be a key step along their road to hosting the 2015 World Cup and a championship victory would keep the blazers at RFU headquarters very content.
England are the traditional superpower of the Six Nations and every other team wants to beat a strong Red Rose team en route to a championship victory, in order to fully test their own playing abilities.
The tournament is always better when England are strong and they are rightly regarded as a major scalp.
Lancaster is still assembling the pieces of his squad and this season England may find France are too complete, but their journey is at a critical junction and their passage from here onwards will be fascinating to observe.
Forwards: Calum Clark, Alex Corbisiero, Dan Cole, Tom Croft, Dylan Hartley, James Haskell, Tom Johnson, Joe Launchbury, Courtney Lawes, Joe Marler, Ben Morgan, Geoff Parling, Chris Robshaw (captain), Mako Vunipola, Thomas Waldrom, Dave Wilson, Tom Wood, Tom Youngs.
Backs: Chris Ashton, Brad Barritt, Mike Brown, Freddie Burns, Danny Care, Lee Dickson, Owen Farrell, Toby Flood, Ben Foden, Alex Goode, Jonathan Joseph, David Strettle, Manu Tuilagi, Billy Twelvetrees, Ben Youngs.