Far and away the most improved side in this year’s Six Nations, England’s second place finish is a testament to the hard work of not just the players, but also Stuart Lancaster.
Victory over Ireland last weekend may have brought the Twickenham fans some emotional release after four painful months since the fallout of the Rugby World Cup, but it was in Paris where this new England side truly came together. After two tense and unconvincing wins away from home at Murrayfield and in Rome, two results that both looked unlikely at certain stages in each match, they came good.
From there, the cruel way in which Wales snatched victory at Twickenham could have seen their campaign go off the rails. Yet their confidence never seemed to waver in the aftermath of that match. By scoring three tries against a disjointed France away from home, they went one better than Ireland had done the week before. Maligned and criticised for their lack of attacking edge, they produced three sensational scores. The story would have been dramatically different if François Trinh-Duc had converted his drop goal chance, but this was England’s moment of glory.
The demolition of Ireland a week later was reminiscent of the England pack of yesteryear, Alex Corbisiero and Dan Cole confirming that at present they are a cut above any of the other English competition coming through. This season’s championship has been all about younger players, both are 23, putting whatever experience they have at international level into good use.
On top of that, the temperament of England’s new players has been crucial. Owen Farrell’s consistency and accuracy saw him feature in nearly all of our writers Teams of the Tournament. Their defensive prowess came from outstanding communication and hard work from Brad Barritt and captain Chris Robshaw to highlight two leaders. Ben Morgan came in and gave England a dynamism from the back of the scrum that for so long they have truly been missing. The perfect balance between Mouritz Botha and Geoff Parling initially appeared accidental, but arguably formed the most effective pairing in the tournament.
It would also be wrong to forget the contribution of Charlie Hodgson; less so for his game management but more for his charge downs which proved the difference away from home. At a time when the young Farrell needed nurturing into international rugby, Hodgson’s inclusion in the starting XV was perfect. The level of his involvement going forward is up in the air with Toby Flood fit once more, but in the long-run his time with the side over the last two months could prove vital.
Finally, no one deserves credit more than Stuart Lancaster. Following every final press conference of the week at Pennyhill Park, it was hard not to leave without feeling a sense of encouragement. Under his watch, no detail has been overlooked. The clarity in his instructions to his players has meant that whilst critics may have quipped that the English game plan was simple and unimaginative, with eight weeks now passed since the tournament began he has worked nothing short of a miracle.
For England to finish second with four wins out of five is remarkable, especially given that three of those came away from home. If the majority of the starting XV can stick together over the coming seasons, and importantly under Lancaster’s watch, then the 2015 Rugby World Cup should be considerably more successful that the 2011 nightmare. More immediately, the focus will already be on South Africa, with Lancaster having already sent each player a DVD of what to expect. Rather than start afresh with Nick Mallett, England have the blueprints already mapped out. If he can produce the results that he has done in eight weeks, imagine the possibilites in four years.
by Ben Coles