CHRIS Robshaw has reacted to a spirited defeat to New Zealand by declaring England must win a Six Nations title to provide evidence of genuine progress.
The All Blacks avenged last autumn’s Twickenham humiliation with a 30-22 victory in a captivating climax to the QBE Internationals, but they were made to look far from invulnerable.
A side that uses the mantra “We are the most dominant team in the history of the world” for motivation required a moment of genius from Ma’a Nonu, finished by Julian Savea, to preserve their perfect record this year.
The try came after England displayed courage and character to replace a 17-3 deficit with a 22-20 lead, only for Nonu and Savea to intervene in the final quarter.
It was just their second defeat in 11 matches, but Robshaw insists any loss – even to the world champions in a breathless Test – is unacceptable.
“We’re pretty close to where we want to be, but we’re not quite there,” the captain said. “If we’d beaten New Zealand we’d have been pretty happy, but we’re at that level where you can perform well and get close, but it’s about winning.
“We are improving game by game, week by week and tournament by tournament and we must make sure we continue that.
“We’ve now finished second in the Six Nations for the last two years and the only way for us to improve is to win it. That’s the aim.
“We had a pretty good campaign last season but unfortunately fell short at the final hurdle. The good teams don’t fall short, they take their opportunities.
“The All Blacks didn’t lose a game in the Rugby Championship. They are the benchmark, but we want to be better.”
Missing six British and Irish Lions and counting 528 fewer caps in their starting XV, England entered the match as 1-10 underdogs yet produced comfortably their best performance of the autumn.
After enduring a nightmare start that saw Savea cross after just 145 seconds followed by Kieran Read in the 17th minute, they staged a fightback founded on the toil of their pack.
Second row Joe Launchbury’s try was hardly a thing of beauty as he broke from a scrum to pick up a loose ball that had been kicked on by Robshaw and Tom Wood, but it initiated a period of English dominance that lasted two quarters. Courtney Lawes, Dylan Hartley and Billy Vunipola were outstanding as they carried the fight to the retreating All Blacks and, with the flawless Owen Farrell kicking a conversion and five penalties, their fightback had meaning on the scoreboard.
But when Hartley departed with a bruised lung, their previously accurate line-out malfunctioned, offering New Zealand a route back into the match that Savea exploited.
“We took the lead and not many teams get into that position against New Zealand with around 20 minutes to go,” Robshaw said. “It shows how clinical they are and why they’re the best side in the world.
“If they get a sniff they create an opportunity and take it. Once New Zealand get in behind you they get excited and sense blood.
“But our belief was outstanding. The endeavour was there to fight back from the position we were in. The crowd were fantastic in getting us going.
“Every England player gave it their all. We were out on our feet at times, but we stood up and fought for 80 minutes.”
It was a monumental effort from England’s pack and no one carried the impact more visibly than Robshaw, whose left eye was disfigured by a gigantic bruise that sat like a tennis ball on the socket.
“I picked it up quite early. I clashed heads, it was nothing malicious. I just went in for a tackle and clashed heads, it’s as simple as that,” the Harlequins openside said.
“It’s swollen up a bit, but I could see without any problems during the game. It’s all right now. A couple of days and it will settle down.”
Saturday’s heroic defeat was the first of five encounters between the world’s first and third best teams over the coming 12 months. England tour New Zealand in June, playing three Tests and one midweek game, and the teams will lock horns once again next autumn.
“We have a challenging series down there in the summer, but these are the guys you want to test yourselves against,” Robshaw said.