Should England get excited by a defeat?
You could be forgiven for thinking that the smiles were a little forced as England lifted the Six Nations silverware in the wake of a Grand Slam-busting defeat to Ireland in Dublin.
Such a high-profile failure to perform and complete a clean sweep may well be cause for muted celebration. Add in the missed opportunity to notch what would have been a Tier 1 world record 19th consecutive victory then perhaps you have more reason for abuse rather than you do for acclaim.
However, could the pain of defeat be a cause for hope and the catalyst for yet further improvement that would take this side closer to their goal of world domination? Former England fly-half Jonny Wilkinson, for one, is convinced this will benefit Eddie Jones’ side in the long run.
“Even when you win and it’s not quite how you want, you talk about taking your lessons from it,” Wilkinson explained to TV viewers in the immediate aftermath of the game.
“But there’s not enough friction caused by what you expected and what happened to stop you in your tracks and make you really step back and look at it."
“It’s easy to pay lip service to that and you can do some good learning but from a loss like that when the emotions right, people start letting stuff out from a bit deeper and you start getting real change.”
Wilkinson’s dedication to maximising his own development and performance is legendary and since hanging up his boots his forensic attention to detail makes for compelling input as an analyst.
These comments came just moments after the final whistle with precious little time for consideration and at a time normally reserved for predictable platitudes from such pundits. Nevertheless, Wilkinson delivered powerful insight as if it was the conclusion of a thesis.
It is no wonder that Wilkinson is a regular guest at England training camps with Jones clearly keen to tap into his experience and expertise.
The World Cup winner is also no stranger to battling back from set backs having suffered more than his fair share of injuries in a rollercoaster ride of a playing career which also surely informs his thinking now.
“I think it is really interesting because you can learn on the way up and pick out things but it is very difficult to create that kind of open environment for real, real deep learning,” said Wilkinson, seemingly drawing on his own painful experiences.
“That kind of vulnerability that comes from emotions that are often spurred on by disappointment, when you have expectations and they don’t turn out that way it leaves you open to massive learning, so along the way they have been winning and learning but deep down I am a little bit excited about what this will do for this England team.”
Does history give further cause for excitement for England fans?
New Zealand’s 18-game winning run, which England equalled with victory over Six Nations rivals Scotland, began on the eve of their successful quest for the 2015 Rugby World Cup crown which offers interesting food for thought when it came to their development cycle.
The run came to an end at the hands of Ireland in a thrilling contest in Chicago last November but they bounced back with victory in their final three outings of that year – a run of results that included revenge over the Irish in Dublin. The showdown with the British & Irish Lions later this year will no doubt test the durability of that comeback.
Looking a little further back, New Zealand responded to the end of a 16-game winning run spanning 2011-12, that was only halted by an epic draw with old rivals Australia, with an even more impressive run. Steve Hansen’s side suffered just one defeat in their next 26 outings – a run that included 17 consecutive victories.
The other stand out run of victories in the modern era by a leading Tier 1 nation is that by South Africa who also recorded a 17-game winning run spanning 1997-98.
The Springboks’ recovery was not so emphatic with 11 defeats in their next 24 matches although that patchy run of form did include a run to the 1999 Rugby World Cup semi-finals.
If the England boss shared Wilkinson’s enthusiasm after tasting defeat for the fist time since taking charge then he was not showing it. In a classic Jones move, the ever-quotable coach immediately deflected attention away from his side’s shortcomings.
“I didn’t prepare them well enough. I take full responsibility. I’m human, I make mistakes. I have to look and the team performance and fix it,” he insisted, in an attempt to command the headlines.
He underlined that stance a couple of days later when the dust had settled. “I don’t think I gave the team the right environment to prepare well,” he said. “I don’t think I created the absolute right mindset for the team, and I need to look at what I said and what I didn’t say and improve on that in the future.”
That mental element was also pinpointed by Wilkinson in his assessment of how England move forward. “The big thing, I think, that they need to address is just coming even closer together, so they see the same message, everyone reacts and responds as one as much as they can,” he explained.
“It’s very difficult when you have got 15 guys with 15 different mindsets and different things to play for but Ireland had that and that is why England could not break their defence and why in attack it felt like that they had more power.”
But that fact could still not dampen Wilkinson’s belief of an even brighter future for England.
“This is a huge learning opportunity and a huge opportunity to get better and grow which if you add to an 18-match unbeaten streak, that’s what I mean about an exciting future.”
No wonder they were smiling in Dublin.