I was in Rome last Saturday in an Irish bar full of England supporters when the Six Nations came to a thrilling climax, but nobody was seriously begrudging Ireland an epic victory over France to claim the Championship.
The England XV had made a determined effort in their earlier 52-11 win over the Azzurri to step up if Ireland faltered at the last hurdle – but it wasn’t to be.
For me, the positives far outweigh any negatives from an England perspective.
This championship has seen important markers laid down with important victories over both the Irish and Welsh teams and, with a Triple Crown in the bag, there can be no denying the developing potential of Stuart Lancaster’s men to be a serious threat to any team in the world.
A year and a half out from a home World Cup there is a young group playing well together, and they are only going to get better when you consider some of the players who are still on the injured list. Had it been in any other circumstances, a 50-point tally against the Italians would have been hailed an unqualified success. As it was, they have received criticism for not overhauling the massive Irish points difference.
They are not yet the finished product, and their head coach Stuart Lancaster would be the first to admit that.
I was fortunate to hear Stuart and members of his management team speaking to an audience of England supporters on the Friday evening. As you would expect they are acutely aware of where they are in this side’s development. They are very conscious of what needs to be done.
The game at Stadio Olimpico showed a young group of players who are eager to play rugby. Perhaps they could be accused of trying to play a bit too much, before they had really subdued the Italians, and they could be a little more organised in terms of playing in the right areas of the field. The management know there are technical and tactical adjustments that need to be made and there could be a slight tempering of enthusiasm to ensure they are more clinical, but there were masses of positives with great performances once again from the likes of Mike Brown, Danny Care, Ben Morgan. I could go on, but hopefully the point is made!
Our Italian hosts were incredibly hospitable, and Rome is a great place to go and watch rugby. I was not lucky enough to play against the Azzuri during my own career, but when I was managing the national side it was always a struggle against them.
Italy are not the incompetents they are sometimes made out to be and, aside from the last two games of this Six Nations, they have competed well. They nullified a lot of England’s attempts to score through aggressive tackling and just getting in the way, but you cannot ignore the achievement of the English in overcoming this defence and engineering some great tries in the process.
They were never going to out-score Ireland, no matter what Sir Clive Woodward or anybody else might say. Their only hope of winning the Championship rested on France beating the Irish.
They gave it their all and finished second. There is no disgrace in that, and it should not be forgotten amid all the fallout that England actually won the Triple Crown.
Most importantly, the team is developing well, with an increasing air of self-belief and determination.
Owen Farrell at fly-half has shown real progression with his tactical kicking, and Luther Burrell (pictured left) has demonstrated an appetite for scoring tries.
It was great to see Chris Robshaw getting his try at the end after everything he has contributed during the tournament, and to see Manu Tuilagi making the kind of impact he did during the closing quarter after five months out injured was a bonus. Only he could have scored that try where he swatted away a string of Italian tacklers, and with Burrell also having a strong Championship Lancaster now has a number of quality options at outside centre.
In the context of next year’s World Cup England are now in a very strong position with a settled squad, who are are only going to get stronger.
With this depth the inevitableinjury toll will hopefully be more easily managed.
A good example of this would be how they coped with the loss of Billy Vunipola. In stepped Gloucester No 8 Morgan. He is a fabulous footballer who carries and distributes well. I wish I could have broken from the base of the scrum as well as he does during my own playing career!
It is again a position of strength for the selectors.