And so after a Six Nations that raised more questions than answers about European international rugby, England were crowned Grand Slam winners…and deservedly so. Andrew Mayes celebrates a long overdue first place for the Red Rose but questions whether this is the start of a successful ‘New England’.
So it’s finally happened. After a litany of near misses and a few ‘what if’ moments in recent years, England have won the Six Nations for the first time since 2011 and, finally, the Grand Slam for the first time since 2003. Thirteen long years without a Grand Slam! Without wishing to sound like an arrogant Twickenham twit, that was a rather lengthy dry spell.
I grew up as a big Six (Five) Nations fan and, as an England supporter in the nineties, Saturday afternoons in mid-winter meant one thing: international rugby. This period of time also coincided with regular tournament wins for England. Between 1991 and 2003, they racked up an impressive seven Championship wins and four Grand Slams. You can understand then that during that era it was almost impossible to conceive that England would go thirteen years without a Grand Slam. But it happened. The balance of power in Six Nations rugby in the second half of the noughties well and truly shifted toward the Celtic contingent.
And that was pretty much the story all the way up to Rugby World Cup 2015. As an England fan, you’ll forgive me if I don’t dwell on that miserable chapter for too long. Let’s just remind ourselves that England hold the dubious distinction of being the first host nation to be eliminated in the group stage of the tournament. Enough said.
How then did England win this Six Nations? How did they turn it around? What was the key to their success, I hear you ask?
Those are questions I’m still asking myself. In the tournament just passed, were England a dominant and untouchable force? No. Did they play breathtaking rugby and comprehensively outplay their opponents? Not really. Did they look like world-beaters? Again, the answer is no. It is an overused cliché in sport but England seem to have developed the happy knack of doing just enough to succeed and grind out the wins. There was a steely determination and organisation about this England side to see games out. Even when their opponents were on top, this determination (confidence maybe?) got them past the winning post. This is the difference from the side that bombed in RWC2015: they seem to have the self-belief that they will get the job done. The teams of Stuart Lancaster and Eddie Jones (above) are, after all, not that dissimilar, but it’s that English swagger that Jones has brought about that has flipped this team from losers to Six Nations Champions.
A caveat though: England are far from the finished article. They were helped along the way in this year’s tournament by some stuttering and inconsistent performances by their opponents. The campaigns of our competitors failed to build any real momentum. It was, quite simply, there for England to take. After watching Wales and Ireland battle to a draw in the early stages of tournament, a wry smile appeared on the face of England fans (myself included). Was I alone in thinking then that, in bagging only a point each, Wales and Ireland had thrown the door wide open for England to walk through? And walk through they duly did with workmanlike performances away from home, and the better displays reserved for Twickenham (as was required). It should also be said that there were many comments about the overall quality of this year’s Six Nations. It was by no means ‘vintage’ but, in England’s defence, I present another of sport’s old clichés: you can only beat what is put in front of you. After their disastrous 2015 World Cup campaign (not to mention all those previous Six Nations near-misses) 2016’s success carries a serious amount of relief and redemption for England and their followers.
So, apart from being deliriously happy at the present moment, can English fans be optimistic for the future? Well that depends if, as another of our Six Nations blogs this year put it, you’re a cup half-full or half-empty type of person. The realist in me recognises that this was a Six Nations lacking in quality. Looking at the bigger picture, the southern hemisphere nations are still well ahead of their northern hemisphere counterparts. Or, to put it another way, no team in Europe looks to have caught up yet with the standard shown by last year’s RWC semi-finalists. The real test (and the true mark of progress) will come when England and the other northern hemisphere nations face the Australias, New Zealands, South Africas and Argentinas of this world. For England, that test comes this summer.
Having celebrated the Grand Slam (which I’ll continue to do for a while), the ‘realist’ in me is starting to emerge. I am fully aware of what a huge task England face if they want to triumph over the powerhouses of world rugby. I’m also totally on board with the idea that the European teams have to try extra hard to break the hegemony of the southern quartet, for that is what international rugby is now in danger of becoming: the ‘Big Four’ of the south battling it out for supremacy amongst themselves while the rest fight over the scraps. But that’s a discussion for another day (as is the debate about the future of the famous old Six Nations tournament itself).
But you have to start somewhere. To go back to that old cliché again, England have beaten what was in front of them. They have succeeded in doing this for the first time in (too) many years. We all know that sterner tests await them. Tests where England will have to seriously raise their game to stand any chance of winning. But, for now, English rugby fans should raise a glass of their favourite and (no doubt) expensive vintage, and enjoy the moment of glory. I know that I certainly will.
Grand Slam. Sounds pretty good. Thirteen years was a very long wait.