"This is the best squad we have had in my time being in charge," Martin Johnson stated this week.
Yes I think you're probably right Johnno.
Johnson has come in for a lot of stick recently (including from myself), but with players like Toby Flood, Delon Armitage and Riki Flutey back from injury and the addition of young guns Ben Foden, Courtney Lawes, Dan Cole and Matt Mullen into the squad, there is plenty to placate those who sneered after England's 'performances' in the November tests. Still, it all comes down to how Johnson's bunch of merry men perform on the pitch, and whether they will continue to play a rather lacklustre game of rugby by numbers or if they are allowed to go out and play instinctively. Will Johnson choose the powering blunderbuss of Danny Hipkiss at outside centre or will he go for the flair of Mathew Tait? Who will be selected in the second row? Will Johnno actually mix things up after the dismal displays of the autumn? It might not be possible to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear but I'm pretty sure the reverse is possible if players are coached in a way that prevents them playing their natural game, as was demonstrated very effectively in the games against Australia, Argentina and New Zealand.
In last year's Six Nations, England finished second behind Grand Slam winners Ireland by virtue of a superior points difference over France and Wales, who were both tied with England on six points. I don't think anyone is tipping England to win the tournament this year as the team doesn't have the settled look of Ireland or the flashes of brilliance displayed by France. However I think England might well be the dark horse of the competition, as although England should expect great things of MJ and his boys, after the dismal displays last autumn, no one really expects that much. Write England off at your peril.
Top Trump time:
With an injury hit first choice front row (Sheridan out as he recovers from a dislocated shoulder and Vickery nursing his neck injury), Tim Payne (who was taught a serious lesson the other week by Leicester's Dan Cole) returns, and there is also a call up for Cole into the squad. Worcester's Matt Mullen has been plucked from under Mike Ruddock's nose and is also included, so there is an element of international inexperience in the England front row that may well start against Wales. Still, we can't have it all, and after calling on Johnno to look to next year's World Cup I can't complain. Saints captain Dylan Hartley completes the front row and with Borthers wearing the captain's armband and Simon Shaw, James Haskell, Nick Easter and Lewis Moody likely to start, England's pack is a combination of youth and experience.
Despite critics complaining about Steve Borthwick's lack of dynamism and questioning his leadership, the cold hard stats show that he is one of the most consistent line-out men in the business. During last year's Six Nations, England lost only one of their 49 line-outs, a feat attributed to the skill and organization of Borthwick. Wasps and Lions hero Simon Shaw looks likely to join him in the boiler room, and with the solid Louis Deacon and Courtney Lawes on the bench, England are looking strong in this area. It's just a massive shame that Tom Croft will miss the tournament as his line out skills are also excellent. This is an area in which England should excel during this year's competition.
Attacking Flair: 45/100.
England have all the right ingredients to cook up a feast of attacking rugby that is brimming with flair. The question is, how will Martin Johnson use the likes of Riki Flutey, Delon Armitage, Ben Foden and Mathew Tait? Has the style of rugby that England were seemingly coached into playing last November changed to allow these players to showcase their undoubted talents in this area? I hope so, but I'm not too sure.
Defensively, England weren't too bad in the November tests as they only conceded three tries. However the pressure exerted on them by Australia and New Zealand led to them concede plenty of penalties, and if Dan Carter had put on his kicking boots at Twickenham then the score line would have looked a lot less favourable than the 19-6 New Zealand win shows. England need to improve all over the pitch in the Six Nations, and if they can do this and keep the penalty count down then I think they will be in a much better state defensively.
Twickenham. Capacity 82,000.
Snore Factor: 86/100.
Potentially very high based on recent performances. Remember when England were booed off at half time when they played Argentina in November? Snore-tastic. I'm hoping for a big improvement in the Six Nations, but looking at their current form they've got to score highly in this category.
Phwoargh Factor: 56/100.
Erm. Well Super Jonny's not the young, fresh-faced player he once was, and Lewis Moody and Steve Borthwick aren't going to win any beauty pageants. Please don't get me started on Tim Payne. Then again, I suppose Ben Foden is a bit of a pin up boy, Ugo Monye and Delon Armitage are OK, as is Dylan Hartley. Sort of. Oh and don't forget James "The Hask" Haskell who is fresh from modelling for the Dieux Du Stade calendar. Still, they're all pretty average.
Scandal Potential: 30/100.
Daylight robbery anyone? That was the cry of the Twickenham crowds last November. If Martin Johnson's England decide not to don their Adam Ant-style Highwaymen outfits and rob the rugby going public of the price of their ticket, then unless there's another bout of players snorting random drugs or spitting out fake blood then I think England deservedly score a pretty low mark in this category.
As for the final standings:
Last season: 2nd.
Prediction for this season: 3rd.