In 30 years’ time most people looking at the 2017 Six Nations table will assume England enjoyed a truly golden season. Dylan Hartley’s team retained their title, finished the tournament with their second-highest haul of tries since 2004 and equalled the world record for successive major Test victories. The squad is still mostly young and only New Zealand are placed above them in the world rankings.
Those with longer memories, though, will not forget the hefty dose of perspective dished out by Ireland on the concluding weekend in a contest that left numerous uneasy questions hanging in the drizzly Dublin air.
When it came to entering Test rugby’s hall of fame England badly flunked the admission test, failing even to score a try for the first time in Eddie Jones’s tenure. Not for the first time their best-laid plans failed to survive the short trip across the Irish Sea.
Ireland fully deserved their reward but Jones and his players will have to stew on this frustrating finale for a while. The strange flatness of the first 40 minutes, the lack of precision, the failure to cope with Ireland’s extra physicality: for a team with such grand ambitions the reality check was sizeable.
There is no shame in losing 13-9 against a side who have now defeated all the world’s top three-ranked sides in the past five months but, regardless of the tricky conditions, England also made a major contribution to their own downfall.
It has happened before on the final weekend: of their 18 Six Nations games in round five, England have a modest 50% record. The concept of other teams raising their levels against the English is all too familiar but the lack of visiting sharpness suggested one of two things: the full-on training regime under Jones is beginning to catch up with one or two or this squad is not yet quite as consistently adaptable as the long winning run might suggest.
This, remember, was an Irish side lacking their best player, the injured Conor Murray, forced into a late reshuffle by Jamie Heaslip’s hamstring tweak in the warm-up and previously well beaten by both Scotland and Wales. England were settled, well prepared and expectant, yet barely fired a shot. Only against the below-par Scots, in the final analysis, have they looked like a team of potential world-beaters.
As well as ensuring a couple of fringe English contenders will be cut from Warren Gatland’s Lions list, it leaves Jones with some medium-term dilemmas. Hartley has done a wonderful job of fostering a good team spirit but is nothing like as dominant a force as he was a few years ago. Along with his team-mates James Haskell and Mike Brown he will have turned 33 by the time the next World Cup kicks off and the odds on all three featuring beyond this autumn, let alone in Japan in 2019, must be drifting. “That was like a World Cup final today and we weren’t good enough,” Jones said, slightly ominously. “But we’re better off having that experience today than in Yokohama stadium at 8pm on 2 November 2019.”
He is right, of course. Losing in Dublin in 2001, in retrospect, probably helped England win the World Cup in 2003; it concentrated minds and taught them to be more ruthless on several fronts.
It may yet have a similar effect this time if a chastened Billy Vunipola is to be believed: “If you look at the best team in the world and how they react to a loss, they always come back bigger and better. Next time, if there is a next time, we’ll be better.”
Vunipola is fully aware that boasting a winning record as long as James Joyce’s Ulysses is little use if it clouds other underlying issues.
Playing like this, England would not merely have struggled to beat New Zealand, they would have gone down by 25 points. It merely underlines that all of Jones’s little extras – the judo, the tactical periodisation, the finishers, the visiting football coaches, the vision specialist, the financial incentives, the media savvy – count for rather less than his players being able to firefight and negotiate their own way out of trouble when things go awry.
“Every time we got near their half we would make a mistake or concede a turnover and we’d just be back in our half,” Haskell said. “You’ve got to build pressure against a side like Ireland – and the pressure was all on us. That’s nothing to do with tactics. That’s down to individual errors.”
Maybe, but in the first half there were also echoes of the Italy game and prolonged periods of the Wales match, with England struggling forany sort of initiative.
Ireland man-aged only onetry themselves,through a stretching Iain Henderson but could have had a couple of others; the visitors barely threatened the Irish line throughout. Peter O’Mahony, promoted at the last moment to the starting lineup, had a stormer and very few Englishmen outperformed their opposite numbers.
No wonder Gatland could be heard musing aloud about the shortage of away wins – in Italy aside – in this championship in the context of this summer’s Lions odyssey to New Zealand.
Joe Launchbury has had a fine tournament, Dan Cole remains an outstanding servant and Billy Vunipola will be a different proposition when he is fully fit but the smiles on the podium as the stadium lights were dimmed and England were handed the trophy looked strained in several cases.
“It’s a strange feeling but, ultimately, we won the tournament,” Hartley said. “We lost but it gives us a good reality check that we’re not the finished article.”
Even the captain, though, owned up to some regrets. “It’s a bad taste. We didn’t do it in the style or fashion that we wanted.”
It was a far sweeter outcome for Andy Farrell, the erstwhile England defence coach, who had clearly demanded a vigorous response to Ireland’s disappointing second half in Cardiff. “They are brilliantly coached and they executed their plans well,” said Jones, who still anticipates 15 England players touring with the Lions.
He could easily be right but O’Mahony, Henderson, CJ Stander, Tadhg Furlong and Jack McGrath all staked emphatic claims when it really mattered. England’s deserved 2017 success, like it or not, will forever have a green asterisk attached.