England are champions of Europe again but a shift in the balance of power means this is no time to stand still and admire the view from the top of the Six Nations table.
Amid the euphoria of collecting the trophy on their return from Rome, Eddie Jones‘s squad recognise that this was not a dominant campaign. They finished top on points difference, ahead of resurgent France.
If anything, there has been more widespread acclaim for the runners-up than for the victors. England were the standardbearers at the World Cup last year and remain the pre-eminent force — but only just.
England flanker Maro Itoje spoke about the importance of not standing still after Six Nations
Players had a small celebration back home having claimed the title away by beating Italy
The overwhelming conclusion from this two-part 2020 event is that the Gallic swagger is back as Fabien Galthie’s side have shown that they are ready to banish a generation of decline and build momentum ahead of their home World Cup in 2023.
So the title is in English hands but their status is under threat, especially as their Grand Slam quest was swiftly wrecked by defeat in Paris in February. The good news for Jones and his players is that there may be an early opportunity to validate this success.
The Autumn Nations Cup looms as a contrived means of providing international fixtures in place of the traditional tours by the southern elite. But the script points to a gripping climax against France.
Ben Youngs played a starting role on his 100th Test appearance as England claimed victory
The strongest teams are in different pools which clears the way for an England-France final.
First comes a home banker against Georgia, followed by the visit to Twickenham of Ireland, who are in transition under Andy Farrell.
After that England go to Llanelli to take on Wales, who are enduring an uncomfortable slump. England would then expect to earn another shot at France, who will be favourites to finish above Fiji, Italy and Scotland in their pool.
It would be an opportunity for Owen Farrell and his team-mates to show the French that they will not surrender their status easily.
Jones would relish the chance to outsmart Galthie as a reminder that, in Test coaching terms, he is the master and the former scrumhalf remains an apprentice — albeit one learning fast.
An England maul resulted in Jamie George powering over for the third try on his 50th cap
It was Maro Itoje who spoke on Sunday, with a medal around his neck, about the importance of not standing still.
‘We’re only just getting started in terms of where we think we can go,’ he said. ‘We want to continue to progress. We don’t want to rest on our laurels. We just want to get better.
‘To do that you have to be looking forward and progressing, you have to be innovative and try new things, otherwise the crowd overtakes you — because everyone wants to improve.’
England did what they had to do on Saturday in Rome. Just about. They claimed the bonus-point win over Italy which was a minimum requirement, but fell a try or two short of putting the title beyond Ireland’s reach which meant they then had to endure a tense night watching the France – Ireland showdown in Paris.
Itoje said of France: ‘They are a talented team. These guys are young, dynamic and look as if they are on the rise under a new coaching set-up which seems to be paying dividends. From a competitor’s point of view, I want all the teams in the Six Nations to be strong because that brings the best out of you.’
Tom Curry nipped in on the blindside to take the ball and race around the right side of Italy
Over the course of a busy Test schedule on Saturday, the statement results occurred in Paris and in Sydney, where New Zealand put Australia to the sword with a record 43-5 win to retain the Bledisloe Cup.
The All Blacks have recovered quickly from their World Cup semi-final defeat to England. They are rising again and France are rising too so England cannot afford to tread water.
‘New Zealand are obviously getting better,’ said Itoje. ‘They are always there or thereabouts. France are also improving. There are going to be teams that put out amazing performances here and there. Our goal is to reach that No 1 spot.’
Having set out to put smiles on the faces of a nation going into another Covid lockdown, England did that with their title success but not with the manner of their performance.
There was a lot of kicking and precious little fluency. Ben Youngs’ two tries in his 100th Test appearance provided cherished highlights, as did much of Jonny Hill’s debut and the sight of fellow novices Ollie Thorley, Ollie Lawrence and Tom Dunn coming off the bench to win first caps.
France are improving fast under head coach Fabien Galthie (front) and England must improve
Jones has so much depth of talent at his disposal, but England will need to acquire greater shape and cohesion against Georgia before facing Ireland.
They do appear to have acquired greater composure and problem-solving nous. ‘We are a more mature side,’ said Itoje.
England will need that composure and maturity, because France are coming for them.
They need to be ready to validate this title and protect their status as kings of the north.
ENGLAND RATINGS: Furbank 6.5; Watson 6 (Thorley 53min, 6), Joseph 6 (Lawrence 67), Slade 7, May 5; Farrell 6.5, Yo ungs 9 (Robson 72, 6); Vunipola 7 (Genge 58, 6.5), George 7.5 (Dunn 78), Sinckler 6 (Stuart 62, 6), Itoje 8.5, Hill 7 (Ewels 67); Curry 7.5, Vunipola 8, Underhill 7 (Earl 53, 7).