While Ireland may have lifted the Six Nations trophy at the end of another fascinating battle for European supremacy, it is England who are arguably the real winners.
The rugby gods may have decided that one of their finest ever servants – Brian O’Driscoll – deserved a fitting conclusion to his outstanding international career but crucially their epic triumph against France also signalled the end of an era for Ireland.
In contrast, there is nothing final about this Championship for England and they are a lot closer to being the all-conquering side that they want to be in a little over a year’s time at the 2015 Rugby World Cup.
But for a nightmare start to the Six Nations campaign against France in Paris when Yoann Huget crossed with less than minute on the clock and an equally agonising end to that game when Gael Fickou snatched victory for the hosts, England could well be celebrating a Grand Slam right now.
Fears regarding the relative lack of experience within the current squad have been allayed with gutsy and characterful performances while concerns regarding their attacking capability have eased in the wake of impressive and refreshing ambition with ball-in-hand.
The likes of centres Billy Twelvetrees and Luther Burrell have silenced their doubters with the latter’s clear anger at being substituted in Rome for a fit-again Manu Tuilagi a clear sign of his growing confidence and the desire in the England ranks.
England also boast the stand out player in this year’s Championship in the form of fullback Mike Brown. A hat-trick of Man of the Match performances serve as evidence of a rich vein of form but do not do his performances justice. His power, pace, confidence and class have lit up the Six Nations but he has had some willing and able allies – most notably a super-charged pack determined to run their rivals ragged.
England fly-half Owen Farrell has arguably benefited most from the endeavour of his forwards in the last couple of months, having been granted time and space to orchestrate proceedings. And it is easy to forget that he is an excellent goal kicker – a fact underlined by his eight-from-eight return against Italy.
Coach Stuart Lancaster’s replacement policy has come under scrutiny with his changes in their opener against France and their most recent outing against Italy called into question after the side appeared to subsequently lose its way.
But the supposed second string are clearly able with the likes of Ben Morgan and David Wilson stepping up when they had the chance and more than holding their own and let’s not forget injuries have limited the contribution of the likes of Tuilagi, Geoff Parling, Alex Corbisiero and Brad Barritt. However, others would clearly benefit from more game time – none more so than stand-in stand-off George Ford.
But there remain question marks – including Farrell’s temperament with the England playmaker flirting, not for the first time, with a sin-binning by dragging Italy’s Edoardo Gori away from a maul – by his neck. He should perhaps seek a word with Brown and his half-back partner Danny Care with both having harnessed their anger – and they are both far better players for having done so.
England’s enthusiasm has also got the better of them on occasion. A half century of points in Rome kept their title hopes alive but if they had been able to produce the accuracy to match their ambition then they could have gate-crashed O’Driscoll’s farewell party in Paris.
As he reflects on the campaign maybe over a glass of red this evening, Lancaster can take comfort from the fact that none of their European rivals appear as well developed with the World Cup – the ultimate goal for all – on the horizon.
Ireland may have secured a rare Six Nations title but they have a huge void to fill in their midfield following O’Driscoll’s final bow with the age profile of the squad in general also a major concern. The result at Twickenham will also be a little troubling with their vast experience failing to rattle an England side packed with comparative newcomers in terms of Test caps.
Wales’ recent dominance of the Six Nations stage is at an end and the lack of a major southern hemisphere scalp remains a major cause for concern although the Welsh input into the British & Irish Lions’ success last summer will have certainly taken its toll.
France remain a work in progress. Some may say they are in ‘transition’ but that suggests there is forward momentum and that is not always evident. At times they were poor, very poor, and the fact that they were in the title mix until the final game of the Championship is almost unbelievable.
Elsewhere, this year’s Championship has been a step backwards for Italy – and then there’s Scotland. Vern Cotter can’t take the coaching reins soon enough for some but he will have the same talent pool at his disposal and has his work cut out between now and the World Cup.
The frustration felt by Lancaster at the final whistle in Rome suggests he knows this was one that got away. Some more silverware – in addition to a first Triple Crown since 2003 – would have been a further endorsement of his methods and approach.
But you only need look at his team for evidence that they are on the right track. That road is about to get a little bumpy with a three-Test series against New Zealand their next challenge but the smile on Lancaster’s face suggests he would not want it any other way. Confident and capable, he knows his side are a match for any opponent – and they are not yet the finished article.
Do England have the most positives to take from the Six Nations? Comments below…