Will England have the last laugh?
December 12, 2012
England coach Stuart Lancaster clearly has his side on the right track as the countdown to the 2015 Rugby World Cup continues © Getty Images
"They all laughed at Christopher Columbus, when he said the world was round," wrote famed American lyricist Ira Gershwin in a song mocking those who dared to doubt pioneers with the courage to dream big.
It is a notion that England coach Stuart Lancaster will be familiar with having invited scepticism and even ridicule in the summer by declaring that he was targeting a place within the top two of the world rankings by the end of next year. "Our overall aim and objective is to be ranked in the top two, two years out from the World Cup," he said with the ink barely dry on his contract. "I think that is a realistic goal and that is what we are trying to achieve."
This from a man who had only been in the job a few short months and in charge of a side that has found victories against the southern hemisphere sides that dominate the international pecking order - and that hold the key to an ascent up the rankings - painfully hard to come by in the nine years since winning the World Cup in 2003. Thirty-five games in that time have produced just seven victories - but the last of those, the formbook-shredding 38-21 win against the All Blacks earlier this month rocked the rugby world on its axis and did Lancaster's soothsaying credentials no harm at all.
Lancaster clearly saw cause for optimism in the way his new-look and largely youthful squad lifted English rugby out of the mire in the Six Nations where a host of fresh faces - including the likes of Brad Barritt, Owen Farrell, Geoff Parling and Ben Morgan who already look at home on the international stage - showed enough promise to earn their coach a permanent contract.
His charges made further progress on a gruelling tour of South Africa in the summer with a draw in the third Test in Port Elizabeth serving as evidence that England were on the right track. Lancaster's policy of injecting fresh blood continued with Alex Goode, Tom Johnson and Jonathan Jospeh among those to step. The draw was also enough to convince Lancaster to go public with his ambitious goal for the side which for some was not bold enough given the talent pool and resources at their disposal.
The opening autumn international against Fiji was never going to offer a clear indication that Lancaster's vision was attainable no matter how emphatic their victory - that would come with the visit of the sport's three biggest names in the weeks that followed. But the game did bring other kinds of rewards with the emergence of Joe Launchbury as a future international star - another beneficiary of Lancaster's vision for the side.
First up were an Australia side reeling from a catalogue of injuries to front line players seemingly there for the taking but there would be no repeat of the dominant victory over the Wallabies at HQ in 2010. They could have no complaint about the result with the resilience of a battered Wallabies outfit offering a blueprint for an England side looking to conjure a similar team spirit and never-say-die attitude.
Doubts about captain Chris Robshaw's decision-making over-shadowed their Cook Cup defeat and returned to haunt the skipper and his side a week later when another seemingly golden opportunity to shake up the world order was missed ahead of the all-important Rugby World Cup draw. The Springboks were far from an unknown quantity and England more than held their own only for fortune to smile on the visitors in the form of a decisive try.
As slim the margins of those defeats, no one, except perhaps Lancaster and his coaches and players, will have expected a performance of the magnitude that they conjured against the All Blacks. Power and pace was married with an elusive high intensity to devastating effect.
Lancaster is often quick to champion the process over the outcome but surely even he will have enjoyed the results of arguably the best performance from any international side this year. It was also a perfectly-timed marketing boost ahead of the World Cup pool draw with such crowd-pleasing performances and results the key to selling the ambitious target of 2.9m tickets for the tournament.
But can they reach those heights again and with the regularity required to dominate the rankings and account for all-comers at the World Cup? As spectacular the victory over the All Blacks, it will count for little should England fail to back it up in the Six Nations. The northern hemisphere crown has largely eluded them in recent years with just one title since the epic highs of 2003 but they will need to dominate once again if their rankings goal is to be achieved.
They will also have to navigate a tour to Argentina next summer without a host of first-choice players and a couple of coaches that are expected to be selected for the British & Irish Lions tour of Australia. And then Argentina, Australia and New Zealand will then provide the final three hurdles before the end of the year.
Of course, England's fortunes in those games and their ranking at the end of next year offer no more than an indication of their development with the real test coming in three years' time at the World Cup - a tournament England will be expected to win regardless of their status. A draw that will pit them against Australia and Wales offered plenty of food for thought and such a prospect would have been incredibly daunting had they not hit such a rich vein of form against the All Blacks.
But thanks to their heroics against the reigning world champions they need not fear anyone. They have shown they have the skills and the desire required to beat the best and while we can expect the All Blacks and others to respond by raising their own game, there is improvement still to come from England with the experience they will gather in the coming years set to complete their armory.
But only time will tell if Lancaster and co, like Columbus, Edison, the Wright brothers, Marconi and the others immortalised in song by Gershwin, have the last laugh.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.