Today could potentially be a historic day for English rugby as the Eddie Jones’ England side look for the country’s first grand slam since 2003, but whilst an important step forward, it should only be just the start.
Any victory in Paris is in itself impressive.
Wales won there last year and Ireland in 2014, but the last time England achieved it was Stuart Lancaster’s debut season in 2012. Significantly, Wales and Ireland have both dominated the Six Nations in recent years, with Wales having won two back-to-back titles in 2012 and 2013 and Ireland doing the same in 2014 and 2015.
Yet neither of those two sides – despite their valiant efforts in the past four years – has been able to move beyond being dominant in Europe into regularly challenging the Southern Hemisphere superpowers.
Despite achieving the grand slam for the second time under Warren Gatland’s coaching set up in 2012, Wales lost all three summer tests against Australia and suffered defeats to both New Zealand and Australia in the Autumn Internationals that year, although it was a competitive and close game against the men in green and gold.
2013 saw losses to the Aussies and South Africa once again and a shock loss to Japan – however one must remember that most of Wales’ front line stars were part of a powerful Lions squad that went on to win a series for the first time since 1997.
Warren Gatland’s Wales narrowly beat South Africa 12 – 6 at the Millennium Stadium back in the 2014 Autumn Internationals, but this was coupled with a disappointing 16 – 34 loss to the All Blacks and a promising performance in a 28 – 33 defeat to the Wallabies. Even though an injury-depleted Wales shocked England to move into the quarter-finals of the World Cup in 2015, this was coupled with defeats to both Australia and South Africa once again.
In comparison, Ireland followed their Championship wins under Joe Schmidt with impressive victories against both South Africa and Australia. Yet the latter half of 2015 was one of enormous disappointment for Ireland, with the men in emerald green being embarrassed by a vibrant and fluent performance from a quickly improving Argentina side in the World Cup quarter-finals.
Neither of these teams, despite proving themselves on a level beyond their Six Nations compatriots with regularity, has been able to transfer this is into performances that can make them genuine World Cup threats. Summer tours have been disappointments for all Six Nations teams year after year and the last time any of the teams in the tournament managed to win anything of note was back in 2010 when Martin Johnson’s England side beat Australia in Sydney by the skin of their teeth.
Stuart Lancaster’s England teams won four games every season for four seasons in a row.
Eddie Jones has achieved the same feat, but has been gifted the Six Nations title a week early thanks to the inconsistency of other sides and a wonderfully executed victory by the Scottish. If England are to take a step forward from where they have been previously then they must win the grand slam tonight. Anything else and it will be the same old failures under a different coach.
If England do achieve the grand slam then they will of course celebrate, but Jones is too shrewd an operator not to already have one eye on the summer and this year’s autumn internationals. He has shown what his team can do to the rest of Europe, but he’ll really relish taking on his countrymen in their own back yard.
The pressure will be on then, for England to win a series in Australia in June, to show that they can join the top table of international rugby along with Michael Cheika’s improving Australia side and Steve Hansen’s All Black juggernauts.
Tonight gives England the opportunity to put themselves on a par with recent Wales and Ireland teams and they must capitalise on it. Yet the future opens the door for far greater challenges and potentially greater rewards. Failure tonight will mean stagnation, and that’s something English fans have had quite enough of over the last 13 years. If that mighty step is taken this evening, it must be the start of something even greater.
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