State of the Nation: England

Date published: March 24 2015

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As we do at the end of a major tournament, we look at the state of affairs in each of the competing nations. First up, England!

Bridemaids again but this time in style after putting 55 points on France at Twickenham, everyone associated with England should rightly be incredibly frustrated.

The chances were there to win the title – Jack Nowell's late attempt in Dublin, scoring more tries against Scotland, conceding less against France – but in the end England finished a converted try behind Ireland on points difference and lost out.

So, having come second yet again for the fourth straight Six Nations, have England progressed or remained stagnant? It's a mixed bag, while RFU chief executive Ian Ritchie has described a fourth runners-up spot as "not acceptable."

Their attack is definitely better. A combination of that madcap victory over France and putting over 40 points on Italy mean that England scored more in the Six Nations than over the last four years, 157 points to be exact (in the first two years they managed 98 and 96 alone). 

George Ford and Jonathan Joseph have had a big say in that. Ford's insistence on playing flat to the line combined with his soft hands turned England into a different side over the last two months, when his forward pack could supply him with the platform.

When that didn't work, like in Dublin when Ireland bossed the breakdown and their defence gave him no time to think, Ford did noticeably stutter but will have learnt a huge amount, which is actually what England need to do after such a comprehensive beating. 

That's the kind of rugby (sadly) we expect to see at a World Cup, where defence and kicking games rule instead of the craziness of the Six Nations final day. The accuracy of Ben Youngs, Ford and Mike Brown therefore has to be better while clear work on England's defence is also needed, notably the positioning of their wingers. Brad Barritt might be much maligned but he does make that defensive effort tick. Conceding 11 tries in this Six Nations is an unwanted English record, especially when Ireland only let in three.

What's clear though is that England do have the ability to open it up if required. Joseph has been the tournament's breakout star with his footwork and pace giving England a new dimension in midfield. 

Joseph will be a major figure at the World Cup, as will Ford, as will England's returning players who missed the tournament through injury such as Joe Launchbury, David Wilson, Alex Corbisiero, Owen Farrell, Barritt and Manu Tuilagi – key figures and proven Test players all. Henry Slade, Christian Wade and of course Steffon Armitage are all waiting in the wings for their shot (maybe Sam Burgess, maybe not).

England might not have won the Six Nations but there's an argument that it's better to have missed out narrowly after some impressive performances, with the second half in Cardiff a great example, and to use that as (another) lesson rather than if they'd taken the title and played poorly. On the counter argument, how can they win a World Cup if they can't even be the best Test side in Europe?

Uncertainty still surrounds Stuart Lancaster and his team, although less than before the Six Nations. We know their scrum and lineout will be strong, the latter though wasn't perfect, but now their attack can really cause some damage. Do they have that cool, composed edge however that we've seen from the All Blacks and Springboks? I'm not sure, it certainly wasn't there against Ireland.

Being at home however and the factor of playing at Twickenham will matter in the World Cup. The stadium has slowly been transformed into a venue where the noise is actually impressive, something that started during the wins over Wales and Ireland in 2014 to the booming crescendos of last Saturday's win.

England will not be short of confidence for the group games against Wales and Australia and have the ability to reach the last four, but from then on is a mystery. Are they good enough to win a World Cup, or will their temperament let them down?

It's a confusing place to be at a time when Lancaster must have hoped there would be fewer doubts. Still, at least England are exciting again. 

by Ben Coles

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