By Nick Cain
DEAN Richards is predicting a record-breaking third consecutive England Six Nations title, with a 2018 Grand Slam as the icing on the cake – and the even bigger prize of becoming World Cup winners in 2019 within the reach of Eddie Jones’ squad.
The Newcastle Falcons boss knows a thing or two about Grand Slams. ‘Deano’ was the great No.8 grappler in the England side that delivered back-to-back clean sweeps in 1991-92, and he is convinced that Jones’ crew have the class to clean up in this campaign despite their long injury list.
Richards also has a keen professional insight into the players available to the England coach because his orchestration of Newcastle’s Premiership resurgence demands he does the due diligence on their opponents. Added to which the Falcons rise up the table has seen his own players rewarded with international selection, with flanker Gary Graham picked in the England squad for their opener against Italy, and tight-head Jon Welsh and hooker Scott Lawson in the Scotland squad for the trip to Wales.
Richards believes England are favourites for the title because they face their most taxing tests of the campaign at Twickenham. “The two most difficult games, against Ireland and Wales, are at home, and for that reason I think England should win a Grand Slam, with all their away games against the teams in blue.”
He is confident they will beat Italy in Rome, and that although England will have two further trips they will have the measure of Scotland, as well as France – a country in which he has played (Roanne) and coached (Grenoble).
First Edinburgh. “Gregor Townsend is doing very well north of the border, but the Scots have not got the luxury of the depth Eddie Jones has. They have injury problems in the front row, and overall England have quality players to come in as replacements that the Scots haven’t got. Everyone will know what is coming from the Scots, so we should not come unstuck in Edinburgh.”
Then Paris: “With France it will all depend on how structured they are with new coach Jacques Brunel in charge. There’s no doubt that you need a Frenchman to lead the French, and he could cause a problem by getting them back on track.”
Although Richards agrees with the widespread belief that Ireland will again give England their most serious examination of the tournament, he refuses to join the equally widespread dismissal of the French as contenders.
“The French are an unknown quantity, and a threat because of that. The overseas players in their clubs are world-class, and when you put the best French players alongside them in the European Cup they have proved this season they are very strong.
“The French have had a lack of depth but now the new incentive system (where the FFR rewards clubs financially for French-qualified players) means more opportunities for French players at club level.”
Richards, who has earned the reputation of being one of most astute talent spotters in the game, adds: “I particularly like the La Rochelle loose-head Dany Priso, who is incredibly dynamic, but the French have players coming through across the board. The big question is whether Brunel can harness them and bring them together as a team.”
His summary of the French is astute, reflecting his knowledge of the game on the other side of The Channel: “In France it seems to take longer to bring teams together, and they do not seem to be able to manage runs of eight wins on the trot. It is usually three or four at best. France should have won the World Cup by now, and if they start singing off the same hymn sheet for once, they could be tremendous.”
Yet, when it comes to winning World Cups, Richards believes it is England who have a second world champion side in the making going into the 2019 tournament.
He shines the spotlight on two players he considers essential to the England 2019 mission. “Without Billy Vunipola and Owen Farrell they do not have quite the same impact – they are key to how England progress – but if you look at the quality of players the Premiership academies are turning out, there is a side there that could win the World Cup.”
Richards adds: “There are some incredibly good youngsters, and if you supplement that with players like the Vunipolas and Farrell, it is very exciting times.”
Richards does not trade in hyperbole but his enthusiasm is off the leash as he looks at England’s qualities in certain positions. Richards says he likes the options Jones has at fly-half.
“It depends a lot on who is available at 13 and scrum-half. Eddie Jones will pick horses for courses. I like the idea of two playmakers at 10 and 12 (like George Ford and Farrell), but sometimes it is not what is required – and you pick a side to beat the opposition.”
He is similarly positive when he turns his attention to the England scrum, and tight-heads in particular. “I like Harry Williams down at Exeter, and he, Kyle Sinckler and Dan Cole are not a bad trio to have on the tight-head.”
Richards also likes what he sees in the back row, and despite the injuries to Billy Vunipola, Nathan Hughes and James Haskell banned, he says Jones is still spoilt for choice.
“Eddie is very lucky because he has a wealth of talent to pick from. Billy Vunipola is a natural No.8, as is Nathan Hughes. I don’t believe either of them are flankers, and England have plenty of those to choose from. There is Sam Underhill, Chris Robshaw, Sam Simmonds, Jack Clifford, Don Armand, the Curry boys. He also has the option of playing Maro Itoje or Courtney Lawes at blindside.”
He continues: “Sometimes injuries mean that you put in a manufactured No.8, and then it depends what you do with your 6 and 7 to balance it out. Sam Simmonds is likely to start at No.8 against Italy with Billy and Nathan Hughes injured – although Thomas Waldrom can still do a job – with the options of Itoje, Lawes and Robshaw, Underhill at flanker, although Gary Graham wouldn’t go amiss. He’s got a lot of options.”
Richards’ assessment of Graham and where he fits into the England back row matrix as another 6.5 is thought-provoking.
“If Michael Hooper, or Neil Back before him, are your classic 7s, Gary is not that style. He’s more in the Robshaw mould of new style 7 who offer physicality and work-rate. Gary’s got a never-say-die attitude and although he’s a bit rough around the edges he’s a better footballer than people think. Sometimes, because he does the work of others, his game gets a bit out of shape, but, given a consistent chance, he could be a great asset.”
He adds: “There’s no doubt that a quick openside with good hands is still the best link between backs and forwards, but when you don’t have them you opt for that physicality — and Gary is a hard lad who is not afraid to put his body on the line.”
Richards reflects on two other unsuccessful Falcons back row candidates. “I’ve also got Mark Wilson and Will Welch who put in big performances in our back row every week. If any one of those three were picked by England I would have applauded it, and I’m very pleased for Gary just as I am disappointed for the other two.”
Overall, however, Richards applauds what Jones has achieved and is not anxious about the improvements that many – including the England coach himself – believe his team have got to make before the World Cup.
“All of that will be done in the final five or six months,” Richards says. “Eddie is doing a very good job – he has created this focal point of the World Cup just as Clive Woodward did in the build-up to 2003. This year’s Six Nations is important, but it is not as important as the World Cup. Ultimately, you can only judge Jones on the World Cup, and I think they have a side to be competitive with New Zealand.”
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