England have been here before. Six years ago, they were left to lift the Six Nations trophy after failing to win the Grand Slam in defeat by Ireland. As Dylan Hartley hoisted the trophy into the air on Saturday night, the sense of déjà vu was obvious, and yet the faces of those on the podium did not reflect a team disconsolate with themselves.
They made a point to enjoy their success, praise the fact that it took a phenomenal Irish performance to end the 18-match unbeaten streak and try to put on a brave face. It worked, to a degree, but some were able to hide it better than others.
Take Danny Care, the scrum-half who was spraying champagne on his teammates, or even Hartley himself, who was wearing a proud smile and determined to enjoy himself up there. But there was one person who couldn’t hide the disappointment, the ultra-competitive James Haskell, who couldn’t get past the Grand Slam failure after losing by just four points in Dublin.
“It’s a difficult one. Everyone asks you: how you feel?” Haskell said after the 13-9 loss. “Personally I am a very competitive person, I hate losing ,I don’t like celebrating any loss.
“Bbut at the end of the day, this team has come a long, long way, we worked so hard, eight weeks of unbelievable training, we still won the Six Nations back to back, we fell short today but everyone has sweated, bled to get to this point.
“You’ve got to take the positives. It tell you: look back at 2011, we won a Six Nations, we were all upset about it afterwards, but when I hang by boots up, I’m still going to count it as a win because we won. That’s what ultimately matters.”
The fact that the loss, the first of the Eddie Jones era, came after a record 18 consecutive victories to tie New Zealand’s benchmark, made the defeat that little bit easier to deal with. There is also the rapidly approaching Rugby World Cup, which almost reduced the importance of the Grand Slam in the eyes of Jones and his squad. With the draw for the tournament in May, Jones stressed after the match that this first loss has come 14 months into his four-year plan to win the World Cup, and the players echoed his belief that this setback can be an important lesson in the development of this England side.
“You can’t win everything in rugby, you can’t win forever,” Haskell added. “No side in the world has done that, not even all the All Blacks. You have days like this. If you’ve got a long-term project, which Eddie and his coaching staff do for 2019, on days like this you learn. You can always look back at it and say ‘do you know what, we were in turmoil, we had this situation, we had the pressure, what can we do to turn it?’
“All the messages on the field were great, the tactics were great, everyone was saying the right thing. But we’d go a couple of good positives and then indiscipline, penalty and you’re back in your own half. That’s the problem when you play against a team like Ireland.”
The Wasps flanker looked like a man trying to take the positives out of a heartbreaking negative, and it led him to a rather interesting acknowledgement that the next time England play, the summer tour of Argentina, it may not be him in the seven shirt anymore. Whether that’s through a British and Irish Lions call-up, a plan from Jones to rotate and test other options or something a lot more surprising, only Haskell currently knows.
“We threw everything at Ireland and to a man everyone put the effort in, but we came off second best. That’s what can happen in international rugby. We equalled the record and we fell short. Whoever takes the shirt on from now will want to leave it in a better place,” he admitted.
Haskell’s probably going to miss out on the flight to New Zealand unless he can rekindle his form of 2016 in the final two months of the season, the injury that robbed him of the first seven months of the campaign doing his chances no good at all. But he has a revenge issue to deal with first. The 31-year-old will return to the Aviva Stadium in just two weeks’ time to face Leinster in the European Champions Cup quarter-finals, an enticing clash between the leaders of the Premiership and Pro12, that will see him come up against a number of the players who plotted the downfall of England.
The game moves on quickly, and that’s why England are right to treat the loss as a lesson rather than a setback – as long as they learn.