Oliver Holt: England's Six Nations Grand Slam proves nothing

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England's James Haskell celebrates after the Six Nations international rugby match between France and England at the Stade de France stadium. Photo / AP.
England's James Haskell celebrates after the Six Nations international rugby match between France and England at the Stade de France stadium. Photo / AP.

The final day of winter brought forth dreams of rebirth and renewal for England in Paris.

A victory over France delivered the Grand Slam their fans have craved for 13 years.

The zeros who stunk the place out at the World Cup five months ago were acclaimed as heroes on the turf of the Stade de France amid the fireworks and the ceremony.

England coach Eddie Jones has waged a 100 days' war to mould England into an efficient fighting force with a hard edge, capable of winning tight matches like this and so it was inevitable that hyperbole should take over in the wake of an achievement that lays many bad memories to rest.

In the moments of catharsis that followed the final whistle, the talk last night was of a team that had come of age. Suddenly, everybody was saying that Jones's team had proved they were the real deal. Go back to Twickenham and prepare for government.

Really? It may not be the most opportune moment to temper the celebrations but for all the excellence of men like Danny Care, who scored a fine early breakaway try, George Kruis and Anthony Watson, it is worth pointing out that all England did here was win the Second Division.

They cleaned up in a competition contested by rugby's also-rans. It was an improvement on the misery of the World Cup. But in terms of the bigger picture, this proved absolutely nothing.

Sure, a Grand Slam is worth celebrating, particularly after 13 years of underachievement. And, yes, Jones has wrought some impressive changes in mentality and craft in the three months since he took charge.

But coming of age? The real deal? Please. England were too heavily criticised after the World Cup and now there is a danger they will be lionised for what amounts to a modest achievement. Zero to hero in five months is a sum that doesn't add up. Let's not get carried away because we bullied four very average teams into submission and squeezed past Wales.

Let's be honest: this was a poor Six Nations. It was uninspiring and dull. England began their campaign last month with a routine win over a dreadful Scotland side in a match that was notable only for the mediocrity of the rugby on view.

They ended it here last night with victory over a French side that is a pale imitation of many of its great teams of the past. England deserved their win but they made hard work of it right to the last. As if to emphasise the danger of saluting them as world-beaters, they let France back into the game time after time after time.

This is a France team that was humiliated 62-13 by the All Blacks in a World Cup quarter-final at the Millennium Stadium five months ago. In fact, that France side was probably better than the one that lost to England last night.

The World Cup showed us, if we did not already know, that the Six Nations is a poor man's version of the southern hemisphere's Rugby Championship. Of course we are going to get excited about winning it but there are limits to what it means in a wider context.

It is worth remembering, too, that in another World Cup quarter-final, Ireland were crushed 43-20 by the southern hemisphere's fourth best team, Argentina. On the evidence of this uninspiring Six Nations, the gap between southern and northern hemisphere rugby is not narrowing. It is getting larger. Do you think New Zealand, Australia, South Africa or Argentina will have been concerned by anything they have seen these past couple of months? Let's not kid ourselves.

So let's not start comparing this England team with the predecessors who achieved the feat in 2003. That was the England team led by Sir Clive Woodward and peopled by men like Martin Johnson, Jonny Wilkinson, Lawrence Dallaglio and Phil Vickery. Those men were giants. They had nothing left to prove.

Seven months after they won the Grand Slam, they won the World Cup in Australia. When this latest crop of England players met the best in the world last year, they sank without trace. They were a national embarrassment.

This England team is only just starting out. Last night was a beginning, not an end.

Certainly, they deserve credit for what they achieved. England could only beat what was put in front of them and it was not their fault that was what put in front of them was not up to much.

England do at least appear to be heading in the right direction again. Jones has replaced the procrastination and inexperience of the Stuart Lancaster regime with certainty and assurance and his young players have responded to it.Astute critics always said that the England team that went into the World Cup possessed great promise and that Lancaster's successor would reap the benefits of its maturation. Jones has given players like Owen Farrell and Billy Vunipola both the framework and confidence to play to their potential.

Jones has also been fortunate to inherit the first flowering of Maro Itoje and to have Manu Tuilagi and his new skipper, Dylan Hartley, both fit. Good generals need luck and Jones has had some to compliment the raft of improvements he has made. Jones has made some of his own luck too. Winning is a salve. It takes attention away from some of the less admirable aspects of his tenure. His entirely pragmatic attitude to the insults Joe Marler aimed at Wales' Samson Lee, for instance, shone an uncomfortable light on English rugby's attitude towards racial abuse.

Lancaster was widely ridiculed towards the end of his flawed reign for wanting his players to be role models and allowing their disciplinary infractions to get in the way of fielding the strongest possible side. There was no chance of Jones repeating those mistakes, the new coach's champions said. And so it has proved.

Sooner or later, rugby's attitude towards Marler will come back to haunt Jones. And in the summer, England will face a proper test of their progress under their new boss when they play three Tests against the Wallabies in Australia in June. On and off the field, sterner tests lie ahead for England and Jones. The Grand Slam has been won. The honeymoon is over.

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