Physical bruises will become metaphorical if Jones fails to fix pack problems


What do you buy a man for his 57th birthday, who led his team to 13 wins from 13 in the brutal world of international rugby union in 2016? 

Well, if you are Paul Gustard you give the man in question a non-slip bath mat.

On the face of it, the gift to England head coach Eddie Jones from his assistant is somewhat bizarre, but the present was a tongue-in-cheek jape in reference to a now famous bathroom fall, which resulted in Jones turning up to the Six Nations launch last week sporting a heavily bruised eye and a strapped up cheekbone.

There have, thus far, been no such slips from England under Jones' stewardship, and they are favourites to retain the Six Nations following a Grand Slam-winning 2016.

That was part of an unbeaten year for England, but along the way Jones gained a few enemies with his brash, outspoken nature.

The result is that England have a huge target on their backs.

Jones' task is to ensure his team cope with that pressure, but it is a challenge made more difficult by a pack ravaged by injuries. 

The absence of Vunipola brothers Billy and Mako is a big hit to England's ball-carrying threat. Billy in particular leaves sizeable shoes to fill having been one of the standout performers 12 months ago, with his barnstorming runs reminiscent of a freight train.

Chris Robshaw, rejuvenated under Jones having been relieved of the burden that can come with being captain, is also unavailable, while James Haskell remains a fitness doubt.

Throw in fitness concerns over captain Dylan Hartley, who has only just returned from a six-week ban for swinging an arm into the face of Leinster's Sean O'Brien, then Jones has plenty to contend with.

The positive for England is their strength in depth. Nathan Hughes has the chance to step up in Billy Vunipola's absence, while Maro Itoje - who will once again be England's ace in the pack - has all the attributes to seamlessly transition from openside to blindside flanker to cover for Robshaw.

It is a worry, though, particularly with Ireland heading into the tournament in such high confidence.

Twelve months ago, Joe Schmidt's side were themselves ravaged by injuries and consequently surrendered their grasp on the crown having won back-to-back Six Nations.

But the end product has been a wealth of top-quality options. Centre Gerry Ringrose has drawn comparisons with the legendary Brian O'Driscoll, while Paddy Jackson has proved a more-than-able deputy at fly-half to Johnathan Sexton - a man who is unavailable for their opener at Scotland.

Ireland's 2016 achievements were also hugely impressive and included beating the southern hemisphere's 'big three' in a calendar year for the first time.

The jewel in that particular crown was undoubtedly the stunning 40-29 win over New Zealand at Chicago's Soldier Field in November, ending their 111-year-wait for a victory against the All Blacks.

Perhaps crucially, in England's record-equalling 14-match winning streak New Zealand remains a notable omission. 

To completely rule out England and Jones' chances of retaining the trophy, and indeed completing another Grand Slam, would be foolish in the extreme.

But a failure to find a suitable solution to England's pack problems may leave Jones with a sizeable bruise to his ego to the match the one on his eye.