Given that England were the hot favourites in the 2021 Six Nations odds building up to the tournament, their poor results in the competition so far will have come as a shock to coaches, players and supporters alike. Two defeats from three matches have left England cut adrift, with only the tiniest chance that they can retain their title.
It all started with a disappointing defeat to Scotland in the Calcutta Cup on the opening day of the tournament. England just couldn’t get out of first gear against Gregor Townsend’s side, and while it was far from a classic, Scotland were good value for the victory and England looked a shadow of the team that reached the World Cup final in 2019 and won the Six Nations in 2020.
Things got back on track slightly against Italy, although even in that 41-18 win there were concerning moments. Italy scored the first try of the match at Twickenham, and for a while it looked as though England might be heading for a new low, but they recovered sufficiently to earn a comfortable win.
The most recent disappointment was the 40-24 defeat to Wales, where England were outplayed by their opponents. Controversial refereeing decisions did not fall the way of Eddie Jones’ side, but above all it was England’s defensive failures that allowed Wales to get the better of them and rack up four tries.
“Wales were worthy winners,” Jones said after the game. “We take full responsibility and don’t blame the referee. But sometimes there are circumstances that happen that are difficult to handle and we weren’t good enough to handle them.
“There were times we gave away penalties we shouldn’t have. It was just from the effort and sometimes you get in situations where emotionally you struggle because of the circumstances and you try too hard. That happens.”
The task now is to ensure things don’t get any worse in their final two matches against France and Ireland, but both of those games represent tough challenges. France are gunning for the Grand Slam and will be keen to take advantage of the weaknesses England have shown in their opening three matches. Another motivating factor for France is that England just pipped them to the Six Nations title last year, so revenge will very much be on the minds of Fabien Galthie’s players.
For Ireland, there is always an extra edge to fixtures against England, with a strong rivalry between the two teams going back decades. England have got the better of Ireland in the last couple of Six Nations encounters, but Ireland have also lost two of their opening three matches this year which could make them a dangerous beast as they have little to lose.
For Jones, you would expect that the most important thing will be to see some defensive improvement and greater solidity in the games that remain in this year’s Six Nations. It’s been a disappointing defence of England’s title, but they can still salvage some pride from the two matches that are to come.