Ireland are deserved champions, but England have improved so much in this year's Six Nations that success seems imminent.
Ireland are deserved Six Nations champions, but England have improved so much in this year's tournament that success seems imminent.
Stuart Lancaster's cultural overhaul is paying dividends, with a substantial list of absentees compensated for by new faces making their mark.
By developing fresh talent and getting the best out of certain players such as Danny Care and Mike Brown, England are building something big that, if not ready for the Rugby World Cup next year on their home turf, should be near its peak as Lancaster has targeted for Japan in 2019.
Depth, as New Zealand have shown, is key to succeeding on the biggest stage.
The way Ben Morgan and David Wilson slotted in to England's starting XV with ease in this year's Six Nations is hugely encouraging, as has been the impact of Luther Burrell in midfield.
Before the tournament began Burrell was expected to replicate Manu Tuilagi's thrust and power up the middle that England use to get over the gain line, but there is plenty more than that to the Northampton Saint.
He has the timing on his lines to catch defences off guard with skill, not always force, as he demonstrated constantly throughout this year's tournament with clean breaks and three tries in his first five Tests. His clear frustration at being taken off against Italy was an encouraging sign.
To win four matches in a row, including Wales (emphatically) and Ireland (narrowly), and only lose once by two points thanks to GaÃ«l Fickou's heartbreaker represents a leap forward.
It's the third time that England have finished with four wins from five under Lancaster since he took over, but on the two previous occasions there have been major holes to pick at in their play.
Less so this year, having improved their number of tries scored in the Six Nations from four in 2013 to 14 this time round.
Put that down to the impact of Danny Care, whose foot on the gas has seen England catch out teams from tapped penalties and continually keep defences guessing as to which way he plans to go next. He has gone from being excluded last November to integral in the Six Nations.
England though will not kid themselves – travelling to New Zealand to take on the All Blacks is on a whole other level to playing in the championship, entertaining as the last eight weeks have been.
A scheduling catastrophe means that the first Test will take place with England deprived of their players participating in the Premiership final, so say that contest is between Saracens and Northampton – the current top two – then England will probably field a XV like this:
15 Mike Brown, 14 Jack Nowell, 13 Manu Tuilagi, 12 Billy Twelvetrees, 11 Marland Yarde, 10 George Ford, 9 Danny Care, 8 Ben Morgan, 7 Chris Robshaw (c), 6 Tom Johnson, 5 Geoff Parling, 4 Joe Launchbury, 3 David Wilson, 2 Tom Youngs, 1 Joe Marler.
Considering England will be without Burrell, Farrell, both Vunipolas, Tom Wood, Courtney Lawes and Dylan Hartley, that XV still looks competitive. Competitive for a Six Nations fixture certainly, but not enough to defeat New Zealand.
Bringing those players from Saracens and Northampton back, along with the returns of Geoff Parling, Tuilagi and Marland Yarde highlight how deep England's quality now runs. The fact that England can call on Parling, a Lion who started the third Test, as a back-up to the flourishing young pairing of Lawes with Joe Launchbury is a real luxury.
Yarde of course played no part in the Six Nations, but Jonny May has failed to convince over the five matches that he's played in. Too often his mazy runs end sideways and in turnovers.
There's an argument that he has been out of his depth, something that cannot be said for Yarde who looked comfortable against Australia last November.
Concern will linger over George Ford, set for his first ever Test start at Eden Park, but he must start somewhere.
The New Zealand tour more likely than not will end in a 3-0 series victory for the All Blacks, but how England measure up in those games matters more.
If they can challenge and push New Zealand close, then they remain on track. If blown away throughout, then a reassessment will be needed. There's no truer measurement of how good you are than going toe-to-toe with the All Blacks on their home turf.
For now however, their situation appears very optimistic ahead of next year's Rugby World Cup at home. England have defeated Ireland – a possible semi-final opponent – and pool opponents Wales in impressive style.
England may not have the trophy to show for it, but their Six Nations has been excellent and the pain of losing in Paris will be valuable in the future. Lancaster's revolution rumbles on.
by Ben Coles