In the end, it all felt a little anti-climactic in the Dublin rain – England Captain Dylan Hartley and his teammates rightly celebrating winning back-to-back Six Nations Championships, yet knowing that the chance of even greater glory and their own unique spot in rugby history had slipped them by.
Ultimately a big Johnny Sexton inspired green wall prevented England becoming the first side to win consecutive Six Nations Grand Slams, deprived them of the Triple Crown and left them remaining level on 18 with New Zealand for the world record number of successive wins. The natural reaction is to focus on what could have been, and the disappointment on the faces of Eddie Jones and his players was clear. Yet what we really should be doing is praising an astonishing run that started with the dead-rubber win against Uruguay at the end of the notorious failed World Cup campaign in 2015 and ended a full 17 months later. What was it that caused this dramatic transformation?
Big calls, right decisions
The predecessor to Eddie Jones, Stuart Lancaster, will be now forever be associated with the big decision to select Sam Burgess for the World Cup that badly backfired. Every notable move his successor has taken has paid-off brilliantly. He made the bold move to shake things up by appointing Hartley, a player with a long list of bans, as Captain, a move that has worked despite current scrutiny over the Northampton hooker’s form. Great confidence was shown in international fledglings such as Maro Itoje and Elliot Daly, who both look set to be called up to Warren Gatland’s British and Irish Lions squad for the tour of New Zealand this summer. Finding a way to accommodate two brilliant ball-players in George Ford and Owen Farrell has been inspired – the former the catalyst for England’s free-flowing backs play and the latter quickly becoming one of the world’s finest fly-halves. Deciding to install three vice-captains – Farrell, Mike Brown and Billy Vunipola – has also been a wise move, forcing them to take on more responsibility. It is seen as one of the key factors in the form that saw Vunipola be nominated for World Player of the Year for 2016. A coach having the guts to make big calls is one thing, having the judgement to make the right ones is something else altogether.
Finding a way to win
Up until the defeat in Ireland, this England team had shown a defining characteristic of a winning machine – being able to pull off a victory when not always performing to their optimum. The 2017 Six Nations was a fine example. The home thrashing of Scotland at Twickenham was England at their flowing, brilliant best. The other three victories were not pretty but got the job done. An opening win was ground out against France and a surprisingly slow and confused first-half against Italy was overcome. The ultimate sign of the path England are on though was the win against Wales, in the red cauldron that is Principality Stadium in Cardiff. They coped with the raucous crowd, soaked up the Welsh pressure and brilliantly exploited a late mistake late in the game to score a winning try through Elliot Daly in the corner. They still have a way to go to match New Zealand – but the instinct, composure and ruthlessness is there.
To achieve sustained success and go on the kind of run England have been on, you need your big players to consistently step up and be counted. During this period England certainly had that, with the likes of Farrell, Vunipola and Joe Launchbury consistency immense. Yet the impact of those names not on the initial teamsheet has been huge. The substitutes, or ‘finishers’ as Eddie Jones names them, have regularly come off the bench to inject urgency, power and quality to finish off opponents or simply force England over the line. Each player doesn’t feel left out or frustrated but empowered to make sure they make a contribution when their time comes to strip-off and enter the fray. To use a recent example, the game against France in February turned upon the entrance of Jamie George, James Haskell and Danny Care. The strength in depth of this group is remarkable.
The quick recovery
To say that England were at a low after the last World Cup would be an understatement. They were eighth in the world when Eddie Jones took over in November 2015. Subsequently the 2016 Six Nations held additional significance – England were playing to restore pride and faith in the national side, as well as the trophy. They needed to quickly find their feet again and they did, securing not just their 27th title but a Grand Slam to boot. The convincing win over defending champions Ireland, being the first game back at Twickenham since the humiliation against Australia, showed that they were back. Coming through a tight encounter against Wales, a side who had beaten them on the same turf not long before, was equally as pivotal. There was never any doubt that they would finish the job away to France. The Jones impact was clear. Confidence was restored, the momentum had begun.
Big wins, big confidence
Winning a Grand Slam against Northern Hemisphere opponents was a big achievement but this was then blown out of the water by a mightily impressive whitewash against Australia in their own backyard. Their three consecutive victories in highly entertaining, engaging and high-scoring matches showed to the players themselves as much as the fans just what they could accomplish, and that the aim of overcoming New Zealand as the world’s number 1 side was not as unrealistic as many initially believed. The tactics of using a ferocious defence and a physicality to match Australia’s worked almost perfectly. Northern hemisphere teams normally struggle to win one Test away from home, let alone two or three. The series win ranks very highly in English rugby's achievements.