January 29, 2013
England coach Stuart Lancaster and captain Chris Robshaw will be expected to ensure the side kicks on from their recent victory over the All Blacks © Getty Images
England's stunning victory over New Zealand at the end of last year may not have been enough to catapult them into top four of the IRB rankings and ensure a favourable Rugby World Cup draw but it will have generated some priceless belief that should start paying dividends long before the sport's next showpiece event - starting with the forthcoming Six Nations.
Just 12 months after his new-look England embarked on a journey that together they hope will end with World Cup glory in 2015, Stuart Lancaster's side have no reason to fear anyone - except perhaps only their supporters with expectation among the Twickenham faithful now set to rocket as steeply as the players' confidence in the wake of that All Blacks triumph.
Those rivals seeking a reason for hope have suggested that the result may have been a one-off and that the Kiwis were weary and even ill but that is an insult to a side that has made great strides and promised much in recent months. But having hit such heights, anything but a Six Nations title will rightly be seen as a failure to build on a famous win.
England were far from flawless in the autumn with their game-management particularly coming under scrutiny in the wake of narrow defeats to Australia and South Africa, but their ability to go toe-to-toe with the world's best week in, week out was yet further evidence that they are on the right track with their consistency throughout the autumn arguably only surpassed by France who can feel a little aggrieved not to enter the Six Nations as at least co-favourites with the bookmakers.
The bookies rarely get it wrong and they know that should England manage to reproduce the intensity, industry and all round excellence that accounted for the All Blacks then they will be too strong for their Six Nations rivals.
The fixture list also favours England with Lancaster able to look forward to three games at home - including what is sure to be a pivotal clash against France. That is not to detract from the challenge waiting in Dublin and Cardiff where England are guaranteed nothing but a rough ride. The Aviva Stadium clash in particular looms large on the second weekend of action with England without a championship victory in Dublin since wrapping up the 2003 Grand Slam.
That task will be all the more difficult if Manu Tuilagi is missing from England's ranks. The Leicester centre, who will miss the Scotland game at least with an ankle injury, has matured significantly since his ferry-jumping days and while he may not yet be the 'best 13 in the world' that Tigers boss Richard Cockerill tipped him to become at the start of the season, he is not too far from away. He carved the All Blacks to pieces last month with a devastating blend of power, pace and skill and quite simply England do not have another player boasting that game-changing skill set.
Prop Alex Corbisiero has left another sizeable void in England's front line defences with another operation on a troublesome knee injury all but ending his season. An ever-present in last year's Six Nations and a clear favourite of Lancaster and Graham Rowntree, his absence, like that of Tuilagi, will however provide opportunities for others to press their claims.
One player to have done just that in the autumn was lock Joe Launchbury whose star is now in danger of eclipsing that of Tuilagi. The 21-year-old only stepped up to the Test stage in the autumn but so thrilling and assured were his performances you could be forgiven for thinking he was a veteran if it were not for his fresh face.
Launchbury is just the latest beneficiary of a policy that has already paid rich dividends in the form of fly-half Owen Farrell who began last year as his father's son and ended it as an IRB Player of the Year nominee and a key cog in the England machine. Add in the talents of the likes of lock Geoff Parling, prop Dan Cole and scrum-halves Ben Youngs and Danny Care and England look in remarkably good health but it is captain Chris Robshaw who sets the standard.
Robshaw has come a long way since taking on the captaincy at the start of the Lancaster era with just one cap to his name. He has been on a major learning curve, alongside his coach, and not only arrives at this year's Six Nations as a more accomplished skipper but also a more experienced and better player who may continue to defy his critics all the way to the British & Irish Lions tour.
Lancaster's faith in his captain has never wavered and on his re-appointment he singled out his skipper's ability to lead and yet still deliver as a player as a huge factor in England's rise from the train wreck that was the 2011 Rugby World Cup. But the skipper is not alone in his quest for excellence with England's past and no doubt future success fuelled by a squad that expects more from themselves than anyone else could ask of them.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.
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