England in Six Nations box seat
December 1, 2010
Tom Croft's injury was a massive blow for both England and Leicester © Getty Images
England came back down to earth with a bump against South Africa on Saturday but their November efforts still produced plenty of positives. To my mind, they are in the box seat for the Six Nations title.
The defeat to the Springboks was a tough battle. England had a few nightmares with injuries during the game, losing Tom Croft and Toby Flood, but they're not going to play the southern hemisphere sides at this stage of their development and win every game. They only won one of the big three, against the Wallabies, which will be disappointing, but certainly the performances are moving in the right direction.
They are in a lot better shape than I thought they would be when the series got underway at the start of November. I thought it was perhaps a little early for this team because they are so young but the junior players, like Ben Youngs, Chris Ashton and Courtney Lawes, really stood up and proved that they deserved their call-ups. They will be England staples for a long time to come.
One thing that will have taken the gloss off their overall performance last month will have been the manner of defeat to South Africa and also the press reaction to them being 'outmuscled'. They guys will be hurting that it's being said about them. There are some physical players in that team but South Africa's only hope was to turn up and play like that. It was another introduction to Test match rugby for the more inexperienced players and a taste of what it's like to play the Springboks, particularly when they are fighting their way out of a corner. When you've got a bit of confidence in your game, South Africa are one of the easier teams to play against because you just have to front up physically.
Nevertheless, England's hard work is finally coming to fruition and they have got a lot to be confident about going into the Six Nations. They will certainly be hopeful of winning the tournament. The first night against Wales in Cardiff will be vital but it always is. It's very difficult to win the whole thing if you don't win your first game. Wales certainly didn't have a great autumn, Ireland struggled, Scotland are still improving and France got walloped by the Australians on Saturday, so England are currently the team with all the confidence.
Away from the international stage there was another intriguing round of action in the Premiership. Northampton Saints are now way out in front after beating London Irish and the Exiles' disappointing performance at Franklin's Gardens was a bit of a surprise, particularly their poor lineout. It's usually a massive strength for them.
On the other hand, Saints now look the out-and-out team to beat heading into the Christmas period. What would have really pleased them was the performance of Stephen Myler at fly-half. He's been getting a bit of grief, along with team-mate Shane Geraghty, but he put in a really solid performance and that will give the Saints coaching staff a lot of heart. Having spoken to various players and coaches around the country, their strength in the No.10 jersey was the question mark hanging over Northampton. Myler really stepped up.
Behind the leaders there is a real logjam as the mid-table sides scrap for position. Ten points separate Irish in second from Bath in ninth and looking at the standings the next few weeks will be hard for the champions, Leicester. If I was Richard Cockerill I would have been stabbing voodoo dolls of South Africans because to lose Croft on the weekend, so soon after Geoff Parling, is a massive blow for the Tigers. Louis Deacon is coming back but they've also lost Richard Blaze, so the lineout will continue to be a bane for them.
Even with Brendan Venter upping sticks for South Africa and their 10 problems, I still think Saracens have the ability to move up the pecking order. Bath aren't there yet but weren't last year and had a great run after Christmas. It's far less clear-cut than last season and could yet come down to a lucky break or a refereeing decision.
At the other end of the table, it's almost as clear-cut as the top. I hate to say it but Leeds are in major trouble. The problem they have is that winning at Headingley doesn't seem to be as difficult as picking up the points at Kingston Park. Newcastle will salvage a few wins on cold and windy days on their home track.
There has been plenty of media speculation about the future of the coaching team at Leeds, with the club forced to rubbish a couple of reports in the press last weekend, but I honestly can't see the point in changing things at this stage. You do occasionally get a bounce effect where a team pulls something out but it would unsettle things even further.
Neil Back and Andy Key, on the strength of what happened last year, deserve a chance to try and put things right. Anyway, I can't see who they would bring in, there aren't any coaches available that would turn them around. Even if a world-class coach was hanging about, he'd only have the same players to work with. He would have a few months to try and implement a new coaching plan and there's no point in doing that.
If they get relegated they'll get a little bit of breathing space to introduce a new outlook in the lower division, if that's the way they feel they have to go. Leeds need to get back to what saved them last year; dogged performances and not trying to play too much rugby.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Ben Kay is a co-commentator for ESPN