By Brendan Cole
England have benefitted from a good coaching appointment, both on and off the field, for the last two years, with Stuart Lancaster making lots of good moves and coming across as an excellent and far-sighted representative of English rugby to boot.
Off the pitch, Lancaster’s efforts to link the current English squad to the traditions and personalities of past English teams is a typically shrewd move.
But England are not without their issues, and it remains to be seen how well the Lancaster regime would handle a sustained bad run of results against European teams.
The major problem for England in this tournament is that key-difference makers like Alex Corbisiero, Manu Tuilagi and Tom Croft will miss the vital opening match against France.
Broadening the lens slightly, the quality of the talent coming through is also a worry for English rugby, particularly behind the scrum.
Compared to emerging Irish talent, in the early stage of their careers, England’s young players are less exposed to top level competition at Heineken Cup level, spend more time in lower quality squads and get less top-class coaching in elite environments.
Some things don’t change though, and England do have a solid pack. Dan Cole is a reliable tighthead who can also get involved at the breakdown, while Dylan Hartley is robust and combative at hooker, even if he is not as good in the collisions as Richard Hibbard, or as skilled as Rory Best.
At loosehead, Joe Marler is a decent replacement for Corbisiero, though he does not have that ability to take apart an opposition prop. The support is not great as, unfortunately, Mako Vunipola continues to be a vulnerable scrummager. That could prove key in Paris.
Behind the front row, Joe Launchbury, Courtney Lawes, Chris Robshaw and Tom Wood are big, reasonably athletic and accurate but only Billy Vunipola and Ben Morgan have real playmaking ability as attackers. Both are number eights and only one can fit in the team at a time.
Croft may not do everything a blindside should, but the rest are so solid that England can often afford a luxury player. The Leicester Tiger’s speed and ability to pop up outside the centres might have proved particularly useful against the French, against whom he scored a game-winning try in Paris two years ago.
Scrum-half is also a problem position. Danny Care can get England playing at a good tempo and is the man opposition coaches would least like to see in the starting line-up, but he has yet to win Lancaster’s trust. Lee Dickson and Ben Youngs are more traditional English scrum-halves with physical presence and good kicking, but they lack the raw acceleration of Care and do not pass the ball as well as him either.
At out-half, Owen Farrell is similar vein in that he looks the part and kicks and passes well, but is one-paced compared to the best fly-halves in the world game.
Until Tuilagi returns, England will also lack power and penetration in the centres.
The elusive Jonathan Joseph would have been a contender to step up but is also injured while Luther Burrell is inexperienced. Will Lancaster take a chance on another raw rugby league convert after the failure of the Joel Tompkins experiment against the All Blacks?
In the end, he may stick to the tried and trusted. Brad Barritt is clever, strong and a good distributor at 12, while Billy Twelvetrees has the size and weight and could be required to play as a crash-ball man despite his obvious preference for operating as a ball player.
They are not a perfect combination, but England may have to make do.
The wings are also a serious problem area. Chris Ashton has lost his form and replacements like Marland Yarde and Kristian Wade, who may have been judged defensively too weak anyway, are also injured.
Alex Goode is also an option in the back three, but Lancaster may be tempted to throw young players into the mix with Anthony Watson, Jack Nowell (both under 21) and 23-year-old Jonny May all in the debate.
Perhaps a new English star will be born after all. Given the turmoil elsewhere, Mike Brown will be a steadying presence on the teamsheet whether on the wing or at full-back.
Despite that morass of selection issues, this tournament actually sets up perfectly for England.
If they encounter a poorly organised French side on day one, escape the Stade de France with a win, and then manage to beat Scotland at Murrayfield in the second round they will be more than halfway to a Grand Slam.
To complete the job, they would then only have to negotiate home matches against Wales and Ireland before a final-day trip to Italy.
Print the t-shirts? Not quite. England could possibly land a Slam but there are too many weak links to say they will do so with any confidence. In particular, it is hard to forget that the moderate performances against Italy and Ireland last year, and the total capitulation against Wales in the final game.
Can they become champions just 12 months after that?
England squad for the 2014 RBS 6 Nations:
Forwards: David Attwood (Bath Rugby) Dan Cole (Leicester Tigers) Dylan Hartley (Northampton Saints) Matt Kvesic (Gloucester Rugby) Tom Johnson (Exeter Chiefs) Joe Launchbury (London Wasps) Courtney Lawes (Northampton Saints) Joe Marler (Harlequins) Ben Morgan (Gloucester Rugby) Matt Mullan (London Wasps) Chris Robshaw (Harlequins) Ed Slater (Leicester Tigers) Henry Thomas (Sale Sharks) Billy Vunipola (Saracens) Mako Vunipola (Saracens) Rob Webber (Bath Rugby) Tom Wood (Northampton Saints) Tom Youngs (Leicester Tigers)
Backs: Chris Ashton (Saracens) Brad Barritt (Saracens) Mike Brown (Harlequins) Luther Burrell (Northampton Saints) Danny Care (Harlequins) Lee Dickson (Northampton Saints)
Kyle Eastmond (Bath Rugby) Owen Farrell (Saracens) George Ford (Bath Rugby) Alex Goode (Saracens) Jonny May (Gloucester Rugby) Stephen Myler (Northampton Saints)
Jack Nowell (Exeter Chiefs) Billy Twelvetrees (Gloucester Rugby) Ben Youngs (Leicester Tigers) Anthony Watson (Bath Rugby) Richard Wigglesworth (Saracens)