England retain healthy degree of caution among the optimism

A win, and discernible progress. Two things which have been rather hard to come by for England in recent times. 3 tries in 1 game. That sounds so much better than 1 try in 3 games which was all that was managed in the autumn. A bit of dog, scrapping their way out of a corner when things were going wrong. Another feature which has been in short supply lately, it’s been a while since the winning of close games was something of an English habit.

So plenty to smile about. A note of caution though. We have been here before. Remember 2005, when a Jamie Noon hat-trick against Scotland seemed to have ended the World Cup hangover; or 2006 when Wales were thumped by 40 points on the first day of the championship only for England to lose their last 3 games. Consider 2007 when an impressive victory against France was sandwiched between meek surrenders in Dublin and Cardiff; or 2008 when France were beaten in Paris only to be followed by a woeful defeat at Murrayfield. And 2009 when the championship ended on such a high against France and Scotland only for England to disappear into the abyss again in the autumn.

If there is one thing England rugby fans have learned in no uncertain terms in recent years it is that one swallow does not a summer make. Not even several glistening swallows if they are surrounded by a swarm of mud-splattered pigeons. For this has been the tale of England for some time – the odd glimpse of what the team could be capable of when everything seems to click into place in amongst a catalogue of turgid, one-dimensional, clueless performances.

Will it be different this time? The noises coming out of the squad are relentlessly positive, almost too much so. They almost protest too much about their new-found contentment and freedom. And of course they will always say what they are told to by their coaches and advisors. The only way we can really judge is by the evidence of their performances on the pitch. The proof is in the pudding and they ain’t achieved nothing yet.

So what signals were we able to pick up against Wales? Any euphoria should be tempered by the fact that this was about as good a time to play Wales as there could be. They were shorn of two-thirds of their Lions front row, bedding in a new and rather lightweight 2nd row combination and missing their two main scrum halves, instead naming a player who does not get into his club team. Their Lions centre is struggling to recapture the form of last season and their back 3 have played very little rugby of late due to injury. For all the ability of their back row and class of Stephen Jones and James Hook, there really would have been very little excuse for losing at home to Wales on Saturday.

For a few shaky moments in the second half, it looked as though that was precisely what was about to happen. But they regrouped and, through a moment of well-calculated opportunism, made sure of victory. That last try was a particular source of encouragement because, having been on the back foot for 15 minutes, enough of the players spotted the opportunity created by Delon Armitage to ensure that they made it count. It was far from gift-wrapped but they grasped it with both hands.

From a purely rugby perspective, the lack of penetration off normal phase play in the backs continues to be a source of concern and the anticipated return of Riki Flutey could contribute to solving that. But one suspects that the main obstacle they must overcome is mental. There have been so many false dawns and on every single one the hopes of the rugby public have been dashed as soon as they have arrived. There seem to be no over-inflated expectations on this occasion but that is because we have been hurt before and so have the players. While youthful flair is all very nice, grim-faced determination should be the order of the day.

The players must learn to believe in themselves, that they are worthy of gracing the stage. Armitage is a case in point. He made his way through last year largely on wide-eyed enthusiasm and exuberance as shown when he wildly celebrated a long drop goal in the 5th (yes 5th) minute of a match. You got the feeling that he couldn’t quite believe he was there. He now needs to show that he can mature into a seasoned test campaigner. There is a difference.

Consistency is a valuable but elusive commodity in sport. It is the Manchester Uniteds, Roger Federers and Tiger Woods of this world who stand out and, while they are a joy to watch, what separates them from their peers is sheer bloody-minded consistency. Their bad days at the office are few and far between. This is what England must be aiming for over the next 18 months. They have 2 very winnable games coming up and after that, who knows what may happen.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. One step at a time will do for now. Italy will be no pushover on Saturday but a decent win, further signs of progress and the development of a gameplan and maybe ‘Disillusioned of Twickenham’ may entertain the first suggestions that the apex of a corner may be in sight.