Rugby Union Expert & Columnist
England's Six Nations win only the start, says Stuart Barnes
Last Updated: 22/03/16 3:27pm
Stuart Barnes praises England's Grand Slam winners but says there is much more to come from Eddie Jones' men, and selects his British and Irish Lions XV if the first Test against New Zealand was tomorrow...
1. The Grand Slam was a notable achievement for a team who were psychologically down in the dumps so recently.
It was a magnificent effort by Eddie Jones. The Australian has not started the rebuilding job of the team but by giving them structures and helping them understand the importance of where and when not to play he has gone one step further than the previous coaching regime.
In terms of style the 2015 Six Nations team were more attractive; in terms of knowledge of how to win a game the 2016 team were mentally superior. This team is not comparable to the last England team to win a Grand Slam - they were a side at their peak against Ireland in Dublin and ready to win the World Cup a few months later.
This England team is only starting. The journey is a long one but having been beeping around the byways and B roads for a few years it is good to see them back on rugby's motorways and moving in the right direction.
2. Dylan Hartley was an inspirational choice as captain. Did he do anything particularly flash? Not that I can remember. Did he prevaricate or call for a convention when England had options, such as whether to kick for the posts or the corner? No, and although there was never a moment of stark choice as occurred against Wales in the World Cup, the simplicity and clarity of his leadership counted for much.
Dylan Hartley was the bloke many wanted to fail but he came through with flying colours.
His basics - the lineout in particular - were not affected by the added responsibility while he carried with growing confidence through the tournament.
Hartley was the bloke many wanted to fail but he came through with flying colours. His success is yet another tick next to the name of Eddie Jones.
3. Never did the decision NOT to select an Englishman make more sense than after England's triumph.
Jones batted away the question of where the Grand Slam rated in his achievements. Nowhere was the answer. England's journey is beginning.
Imagine if Ian Ritchie had appointed a proud Englishman. We would all be revelling in the glory of the Six Nations instead of questioning the quality of the tournament and the importance of the forthcoming Australia tour; another tick for Jones.
4. Billy Vunipola has been the best and most consistent player of the tournament; yes, the same big Billy that thought a few pints rather than some childish embargo on the squad would have done more for the morale of the squad.
It's not as if the No 8 was saying anything startling. Obsession with physical conditioning is clearly important but so too is the psychological state of a player. Happy men make better players. The odd pint of Bath Ales makes for a more contented journalist too; sport is not that different to how the rest of us live our lives.
Most of us are better at what we do when content. We can't all be Dostoevsky.
5. Maro Itoje has been the brightest talent to break into Six Nations rugby since a teenage George North. He played like a young Martin Johnson (maybe lacking a little of that edge still) in the second row.
His potential was there for all to see in his first start against Ireland. He was off the scale against a Wales team with Alun Wyn Jones among the opposing players.
If England want they could switch him to six and I reckon we'll be making comparisons with Richard Hill by half-time of his first Test at blindside flanker.
6. The back row is unbalanced. James Haskell had a terrific game in Paris. He was brave, a constant nuisance at the breakdown but he's too old a dog for George Smith to turn him into the sort of mongrel of a seven Smith himself is.
Chris Robshaw had a fine season but when France played at pace he missed many a tackle and appeared to be struggling; clearly the management do not rate Matt Kvesic as an openside which leaves one wondering whether the Ospreys young tearaway Sam Underhill is going to be the name on everyone's lips when England's tour party to Australia is announced.
You can be sure the border guards in Wales will be trying to keep Underhill there until he magically metamorphoses into a Welshman.
7. On the subject of Welshman, what a delight to see George North back to somewhere near his best. His tries against Scotland and England were the warm-up acts for his dazzling effort against Italy... now I know it was ONLY Italy but there's not a team in Europe, maybe the world, would have stopped him.
His timing into the line, his flat-out, full speed side step and arcing acceleration to take him away from poor old Luke McLean, it was absolutely fantastic.
North is the one back in this hemisphere those Australians and New Zealanders would love to have as one of their own.
8. It was a good tournament for Robbie Henshaw too. He doesn't seem to be lightning fast but he has thunderous power and with it a range of subtle skills.
Henshaw is a long way from being the next Brian O'Driscoll but come New Zealand in 2017 he could well be the man pushing that old bone crusher, Jamie Roberts, for the inside centre berth.
9. Did anyone except Mr and Mrs Taylor see Saracen Duncan's coming? There was me pencilling Glasgow's gifted 13, Mark Bennett, into my 'Lions team for the first Test if it was tomorrow' and suddenly big Vern unleashes Taylor.
He had a cracking game in Cardiff, an even better one against France and held his own against Ireland. On the subject of 13s, didn't Jared Payne play well too?
10. The Lions team if the first Test was tomorrow (purely picked on form): 15 Stuart Hogg, 14 Anthony Watson, 13 Duncan Taylor, 12 Jamie Roberts, 11 George North, 10 Johnny Sexton, 9 Rhys Webb; 1 Rob Evans, 2 Dylan Hartley, 3 WP Nel, 4 Maro Itoje, 5 George Kruis, 6 John Barclay, 7 Sam Warburton, 8 Taulupe Faletau (Billy Vunipola would have a major role coming off the bench).