There is no competition quite like the Six Nations Championship for presenting mixed messages, but the inescapable impression from a typically chaotic and cacophonous final match in Dublin on Saturday evening was that the victors on the day had gained less from the tournament as a whole than the team who were beaten 13-9 and kept tryless but who finished on top of the overall standings for the second year running.
England, the champions, may regret for years the chances missed of setting handsome records, including a 19-match winning streak and a rare repeat Grand Slam, but their players and game plan look likelier to deliver a successful campaign at the next World Cup than those of the Irish.
The benchmark is New Zealand and the Ireland and England head coaches, Joe Schmidt and Eddie Jones, pictured, know their teams are currently floundering beneath the All Blacks’ water line.
Both will strain mind and limb to bridge the gap by the time of the global tournament in 2019. Possibly to England’s relief, and certainly to Jones’s advantage, given his heritage and coaching experience, the World Cup will be played on neutral ground in Japan, not in rainy, windy Dublin, which suited Ireland’s rampaging, choke-tackling, line-out-winning forwards led by the magnificent Munster man Pete O’Mahony. They exposed gaps in the champions’ capabilities but it has only once been enough to waylay the All Blacks, in Chicago last November, when the 2011 and 2015 world champions were exceptionally vulnerable.
Jones sat stony-faced in the front passenger seat of the team bus as it crept away from the Aviva Stadium. He had refused to indulge in a blame game, other than directing criticism on himself, and will deliver his considered verdict on the last eight weeks at Twickenham today, while the players who lost out on a reported squad Grand Slam bonus of £1million between them will return to club teams contesting domestic and European trophies and – for maybe a dozen of them – get ready for a Lions tour in June and July.
It is no excuse to say the England players were overly exposed to Grand Slam hype. As they and Jones have set their target of becoming the number-one ranked team in the world, it is the kind of limelight that is never going to leave them. The garrulous Australian clearly has time on his hands and there could be an earlier than expected joust with the All Blacks this autumn if the Rugby Football Union, its New Zealand counterpart and the English clubs can agree how to carve up the riches that would accrue. None of the players wanted to discuss that on Saturday night, having been surprisingly dominated in the close-quarter battles; their preferred messages were how far England had progressed – both in the 15 months under Jones, and since the 2011 loss in Dublin that derailed a previous English attempt at a Slam.
“Eddie has been very sensible around what this is,” said Joe Launchbury, the Wasps captain who will return to Dublin in a fortnight for a European Cup quarter-final against Leinster. “He doesn’t need to tell us to be disappointed but he hit home with us – him and [the England skipper] Dylan [Hartley] – about what we have achieved. We are still quite early on in our journey and hopefully in 12 months’ time you are going to see a different side, probably a more accomplished side.”
Launchbury’s club-mate James Haskell was one of six England players tasting a Slam dunk in this city for a second time. The flanker blamed this loss on poor discipline and too many penalties but the essential verdict was the better team won.
“If there was a secret recipe for winning every time, there’d be no competition because we’d all be doing it,” Haskell said. In fact, that is the challenge of a World Cup – winning one more match than the other lot when you are all on a successful roll. The search for that elusive element of perfection goes on.