In the Six Nations, a ‘fearless’ England side showed true grit, and proved there is plenty to take from a campaign that finished with a runners-up position.
It all started back in the Stade de France, in a melting pot vacant with 81,000 passionate and tumultuous French supporters. Inexperienced, England trailed 16-0, having conceded a try in the very first minute. However, the response almost typified the tournament for England, scoring 18 points unanswered. The white shirts with the red rose stamped across the chest shone brighter, and the French began looking as if they were facing a white wall. Yet at 24-19 with four minutes left on the clock, France’s 29-year-old prodigy Gael Fickou dropped the shoulder and stepped down on the accelerator to take the scores level, just before Jean-Marc Doussain converted for a France win. This day would be one that stands out in the memory for the English players, fundamentally teaching the squad that the finest margins can mean so much.
England went on to win all of their remaining fixtures, scoring without reply at Murrayfield, taking the annual Calcutta Cup, as well as a 13-10 closely played encounter against the eventual winners Ireland, at Twickenham. England also had comfortable wins against both Wales, and then Italy finally in Rome. In this final match, a 50 point overhaul against the Italians would have seen an England six-nations win, yet the game ended 52-11, and so England had to wait on Ireland, and potentially France, to do them a favor in O’Driscoll’s final farewell for the Irish.
Ireland went on to win 22-20 in Paris and it was all green in the French capital.
A runners-up position achieved, England can now be satisfied with enlightenment. That night on February 1st that saw France come quickly out of the blocks to take England into uncharted territory in the first game of their tournament could quite easily have derailed a team’s confidence and belief. Yet like a bulldog, England continued to hang on.
A young and ambitious England full of vibrant youngsters like George Ford and the Vunipola brothers will understand now truly what it takes to win a Six Nations title.
By missing out on the trophy in the manner they did will teach the players to be appreciative of the moments in which ultimately the tournaments rest, such as late on in matches and the opening exchanges, as well as remaining in the game, thus improving future concentration.
Winning the World Cup on home soil next year is the objective, and the timing of the latest Six Nations may well be advantageous to the team. It must be said, both the Six Nations and the World Cup are equally as competitive, however conquering World Rugby is what every player strives for.
With a runner-up spot confirmed on Saturday, England will now be even more riled up and have that bit more fire in the belly for the Holy Grail next year.
This indispensable phase in England’s development will be sure to repudiate complacency when England’s first World Cup game knocks on their door. Similar to when Manchester United marginally saw English Football’s Premier League trophy evade them two years ago, they came back the following year much stronger for it, and the goal-difference that saw Manchester City win the trophy was amended by a goal glut of a campaign.
As a unit, the spirit of the 2003 winning World Cup side is what the current side will look to emulate. With the experience of running the Ireland team close, with emphatic wins that may go underestimated such as in Scotland and Italy, the campaign is likely to bolster the side as a unit. Despite being unable to take the silverware home, the ‘white wall’ of England can take their pride and a sense of togetherness being unearthed further.
It may be O’Driscoll’s curtain call; however, for England it’s the start of a rise back to the top, and under the leadership of Stuart Lancaster, a bolstered and more motivated side can dream of hometown glory in 2015.
What can be England’s biggest learning lessons from this seasons Six-Nations campaign?