England finished the Six Nations in second place for the third year in a row, and while that may not seem like progress the reality on the pitch is that their game has come on leaps and bounds.
Fly-half Owen Farrell had an excellent tournament, but, predictably, does not agree with the view that England should be happy with finishing as plucky losers again.
“I don’t know – you play in competitions to win them, don’t you,” he points out. “It was gutting to lose out in the way we did, but I think the main point that you take away from it is that we got better as a team and we made big steps forward.
“When you look at the development – and leading up to the World Cup that’s pretty important – everyone was hurting from the weekend but as long as we made those steps forward then we’ll be ok.”
The England squad watched the France v Ireland game together, being in the strange position of having to cheer on the French. Farrell says it was a galling way to find out where they would finish, with their fate completely out of your hands.
“Yeah – it was horrible. I’ve never had anything like that before. There were a few opportunities [for the French] at the end and that’s just sport really, isn’t it?”
With Farrell chastised at times in his career for standing too deep and many laying the blame – unfairly, it must be said – at his door for England’s stuttering attacking game, it is refreshing to see him attacking with intent and sparking the backline into life. Has there been a conscious change in mentality to go out and be more aggressive?
“We’ve always had that intent,” he says. “We’ve always wanted to – it’s just the details that we’re putting on top of things now, and making sure that we’re developing and getting better, and we’ve done that over the course of the Six Nations.”
Half-back partner Danny Care is another who had a brilliant Six Nations, adding pace and zip to the England attack. Farrell is wary, however, of placing too much credit at any one player’s door – an opinion indicative of the team-focused atmosphere Stuart Lancaster has engendered within the England environment.
“I think obviously Danny’s been outstanding over the Six Nations, but it’s a whole squad effort, everybody that’s been involved in the squad, never mind everyone that plays at the weekend, have contributed to the team playing like it is. It’s that squad togetherness that helps you play like that.”
With the Six Nations done and dusted, it’s back to domestic affairs this weekend as Saracens take on Harlequins at Wembley in a game that is set smash the record for the highest attendance for a club rugby match ever. The game will be exclusively live on BT Sport and Farrell, a BT Sport Ambassador, says that the pressures of returning to club action are largely similar to those faced at international level.
“You put the pressure on yourself because you put the practice in,” he says. “You train since you were a kid to play in these sorts of stadiums and these sorts of events, so you’re just putting the pressure on yourself to deliver when it comes to these stages.
“It’s a massive privilege to play in all the big games but at the same time you put the work in not so you just turn up on the big stage but in every game you play in. To be involved in those big games and play in stages like that you’ve got to perform consistently.”
Away from the rugby at Wembley there is an intriguing charity event taking place at half time as Olympic long jump champion Greg Rutherford attempts to catch three up-and-unders – one after the other – without putting any down. If he succeeds, he wins £1 million for Sport Relief. As an Olympic champion though, this sort of pressure should be a walk in the park, right?
“It’s been about twelve years – more than that actually – since I last played a game of rugby, let alone had to catch any high balls,” admits Rutherford. “If I don’t catch all three I’m going to get absolutely batter by everyone! The pressure’s on.”
If you’re down at Wembley on Saturday make sure you cheer Greg on as he attempts to win a lot of money for a great cause.
By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43
Greg Rutherford takes on the Catch-a-Million challenge for Sport Relief at half time during Saracens v Harlequins at Wembley on March 22nd. The match kicks off at 3pm and is exclusively live on BT Sport 1.
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images