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Can England win the 2024 Six Nations?

Six Nations tournaments immediately following the World Cup can often be the most unpredictable, with the competing sides wiping the slate clean as they prepare for another four-year cycle built towards potential Webb Ellis Cup glory.

After taking over ahead of last year's Championship, England boss Steve Borthwick was widely criticised for employing a limited gameplan, but his perceived pig-headedness paid off as the Red Rose went on to take bronze at last year's global showpiece in France.

His squad selection for his second Six Nations at the helm hints that he might look to be more adventurous, while other factors, namely captain Owen Farrell's decision to step away from international rugby, have forced him to be more creative.

Farrell's decision is likely to be the right one following a ferocious last few years where he has been in the eye of the storm in receiving the ire of fans and pundits, but it leaves Borthwick without his skipper and primary playmaker.

Vice-captain Courtney Lawes and veteran prop Mako Vuipola have also retired and there are gaps to fill, but the talent available suggests the Red Rose will be able to make up for those losses. 

England won the last two Six Nations played directly after Rugby World Cups in 2016 and 2020.

They are 6/1 to continue that run and 16/1 for the Grand Slam, and there are reasons to believe they will significantly improve on last season's fourth-place finish.

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Early fixtures can build confidence

Successful Six Nations campaigns are based on momentum and this year's fixture list gives England the chance to build theirs from the start.

They open the tournament against the two teams they beat in 2023, starting in Rome against Italy, with them 10/11 carrying a -17 handicap, before hosting Wales at Twickenham. 

With neither the Azzurri nor the Dragons thriving, Borthwick can use those matches to experiment.

It is then on to the first real acid test as the Red Rose head to Murrayfield to try and wrestle the Calcutta Cup away from Scotland for the first time since 2020, a result that could take them two-thirds of the way to winning the Triple Crown at 9/2.

Ireland, 11/8 to defend their title, then visit Twickenham on the penultimate weekend, before England round off the campaign against France, 6/5 outright, in Lyon.

With their toughest fixtures reserved for the final couple of weeks, England have a chance to grow into the Championship and peak in time to face the winners of the last two tournaments.

Chance to build on World Cup structure

Although England should show more enterprise than at the World Cup, Borthwick's gameplan throughout that tournament provides his team with a solid base to work from.

New captain Jamie George will be at hooker, with Theo Dan and old rival Luke Cowan-Dickie fighting to act as understudy, while locks Ollie Chessum and Maro Itoje and versatile back-row Ben Earl are all sure to start at the Stadio Olimpico.

Behind the scrum, Alex Mitchell is established at half-back and, with no Manu Tuilagi, Ollie Lawrence provides a ready crash ball option at 12.

He will be charged with smashing through opponents and creating space for those around him to glide through, namely Henry Slade, who has responded to missing out on a place in France by producing his best-ever form for Exeter.

It is also likely that Freddie Steward will feature at full-back against teams who look to kick the ball, but he may be moved to the wing or dropped altogether if Borthwick decides to go on the attack.

No need to Panic if Borthwick opts to release Smiths

Farrell's absence is expected to see Marcus Smith installed at number 10.

The Harlequins fly-half has featured heavily in the last two Six Nations, but has often found himself in the skipper's shadow, sometimes literally, with Farrell regularly stationed immediately outside him as a second receiver. 

Lawrence's talent for getting over the gainline is similar to Quins' Andre Esterhuizen, whose hard running allows his club colleague to play on the front foot.

There is, though, a possibility that Smith could start at full-back after impressing there during the World Cup when deployed as a secondary playmaker.

Steward's defence is brilliant, but he lacks Smith's dynamism in attack, potentially opening the door for either George Ford or Smith's namesake - Northampton's Fin - to play at 10.

Previously called up but having not played, the Saints' Smith has excelled this season, dovetailing nicely with Mitchell and the recalled full-back George Furbank, who ironically made his debut in England's first Six Nations game after the 2019 World Cup, against France, in 2020.

Despite Slade's likely presence in the midfield, Borthwick could follow the vogue of selecting ball players at both 10 and 15, meaning two of Ford, Furbank and the Smiths look set to start in Rome.

England's might be compromised by lack of props

There is real excitement around England's squad, with options galore in the back-line and an 11/2 chance the Red Rose could finish the tournament as the top try scoring nation.

The Red Rose possess potentially generational talents in their three wing options of Tommy Freeman, Tom Roebuck and the intriguing Immanuel Feyi-Waboso, with the former's utility value making him a shoo-in for the matchday 23 at the very least.

There are some worries, however. England's scrum struggled in France and it is unclear who will pack down either side of George.

Joe Marler and Dan Cole are still in the squad but, with 69 years and 195 caps between them, are unlikely to be around at the next World Cup.

Doubts remain over Ellis Genge's technique at the highest level, while Will Stuart was in and out of the picture last year.

The keys could be Beno Obano, a loosehead who has three caps but at 29 finally looks to be maturing into the player he was always expected to become, as well as the impressive Leicester tighthead Joe Heyes.

Front rows may lack glamour, but they set their team's platform and if the big boys do their job, new-look England could flourish in their search for a first Six Nations crown since 2020.

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