A year after enduring its worst ever set of results in a Six Nations championship, England has started the 2019 tournament at a canter.
Much soul-searching followed last season’s miserable run, which culminated in a sixth straight defeat during the summer tour of South Africa, but Eddie Jones’ resurgent side has outfoxed, outmuscled and outplayed its first two opponents in the northern hemisphere’s international showpiece.
England notched a four-try victory over an Ireland team high on confidence in its opening game in Dublin before backing that up with a comprehensive 44-8 win over an ailing French outfit at Twickenham, London.
Such was the ease with which England sailed past Les Bleus — with Johnny May bagging a hat-trick in just 29 minutes — that head coach Jones even felt his team left 15 to 20 points out on the field.
“In that form, I can’t see anyone beating them,” former England second row Simon Shaw told CNN Sport. “The forwards at the moment are just supreme. Just the pace at which they were coming onto the ball [against France] was extraordinary. It was like a torpedo.”
‘Fast and furious’
Shaw was part of the England squad that won the grand slam in 2003 and then went on to win the World Cup later that year. He knows how important momentum is throughout the tournament, but also knows how quickly a Six Nations campaign can unravel.
After a two-week break, England faces a Welsh team that has quietly accumulated a record run of 11 straight wins. Cardiff will be bristling when the fierce rivals — the competition’s two unbeaten sides — meet on February 23.
“You want that game to come faster than ever,” said Shaw, who played 71 Tests for England between 1996 and 2011.
“It’s going to be a completely different game. The Welsh are not going to sit down and let England walk all over them, especially in Cardiff. I think it’s going to be an amazing encounter, it’s going to be fast and furious.
“There’s lots to play for, not least beating England which is the thing the Welsh love to do most.”
Jones called upon a new defense coach in John Mitchell last September, and Shaw, who played under Mitchell at club and international level, credits the New Zealander for injecting England with new-found confidence.
“He’s a great motivator,” says Shaw. “From what I understand of Eddie, there’s a huge amount of pressure he puts on his players and that can reach a point where it becomes too heavy to bear.
“I don’t think it’s a good cop, bad cop situation, but I think John Mitchell is very much an uplifter: Take that pressure, breathe it in, get excited about it and go out there and perform.”
What’s behind France’s woe?
While England purred at Twickenham, France, for many years the most powerful force in European rugby, continued to baffle.
With just one win from their last nine Test matches, Les Bleus have struggled to muster a performance that can match the wealth of talent at their disposal. French newspaper Midi Olympique quickly likened Sunday’s defeat to the Battle of Waterloo.
Having not won the Six Nations since 2010, it’s become clear that French rugby is fighting against more than just a blip in form — particularly when you consider the U20 team won the world championship last year.
“They’re all naturally gifted footballers. Their skills are very innate,” said Shaw, who spent the last two seasons of his career playing for French club side Toulon. “The argument that all the French pundits will give you is that there are too many foreigners in the domestic league.
“That’s a fair argument to a degree, but at the end of the day it’s the French presidents and the money that’s pulling them in. There’s also a defeatist attitude for a lot of these young guys when they come in — ‘So-and-so’s at my club, I’m not going to play, therefore I’m not going to train as hard, what’s the point?'”
The problems, Shaw argues, stretch far beyond the control of the players
“There’s a lot of coaches and directors of rugby that have tried to go to France and change that culture, but French culture is not a culture that likes change,” he says.
“There’s a culture of promoting ex-players, who have been fantastic international players, to high positions in French rugby. Just because you’re a fantastic player, it doesn’t mean you’re a good coach. That happens a lot.”
From throwing away a 16-0 halftime lead to Wales in its opening game to suffering its biggest ever Six Nations defeat by England in its second, this year’s tournament could be about damage limitation for France.
It now has a home game against Scotland to prove otherwise. England and Wales, meanwhile, face a potential title decider.