English eyes should still be smiling despite loss to Ireland

HAVING won 18 successive games, it would be churlish to be too analytical or indignant now that England have finally lost a Test match.

England captain Dylan Hartley holds the Six Nations trophy, which they were assured of ahead of their loss to Ireland (Picture: PA).

There can be no sense of panic or foreboding either, no fear that head coach Eddie Jones has been found out and now things will unravel to the point of disarray.

Granted, the timing of defeat in Dublin had its consequences, not least the fact it meant the Red Rose’s bid for successive grand slams was thwarted.

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Furthermore, the chance to stand alone with 19 successive wins, usurping New Zealand’s record with which they are level, also disappeared with that fiercely-fought 13-9 reverse against Ireland.

However, in all truthfulness and in light of that 80 minutes on Saturday, has anyone really revised their opinions of this England team and their ability to prise the World Cup from the All Blacks’ grasp in 2019?

Let us face it, as nice and as fitting as it would have been to triumph at the Aviva Stadium, it is in a little over two years where this England team will be properly assessed.

If they can defy the odds and lift the Webb Ellis Trophy in Japan, then that will undoubtedly establish them as genuine greats and finally allow new heroes to emerge from the shadows of Johnson, Wilkinson, Robinson et al.

And there is nothing to suggest from the tryless loss against Ireland, as frustrating as it was, that they will not stay on course to head to east Asia in great nick for a tilt at securing only a second taste of world glory.

When Jones arrived at the end of 2015 – Ireland was also his first defeat as England manager having been in charge for all but one of those 18 victories – he maintained there were no world-class players in the squad.

Under his stewardship, that clearly is now not the case; Owen Farrell, Billy Vunipola and Maro Itoje are three who can certainly enjoy that title now and, with two more years to nurture this squad, there should be a few more in that bracket before they fly out for that World Cup.

Chasing down New Zealand as the sport’s number one team is their primary goal and Jones, a cocksure Australian who has imbued his team with such belief, will realise one setback against Ireland is not something that will threaten to derail that.

Back-to-back Six Nations titles speak volumes when assessing their current squad and notwithstanding their first loss at the weekend or Ireland’s win over the All Blacks in Chicago, most onlookers would believe England are better suited than the Irish potentially to down the favourites in Japan.

The depth of their squad, for one, is something that is clearly in their favour and the fact that so many players have gained experience over these last few weeks of Six Nations action is also important.

What must be particularly encouraging for Jones is just how much scope there is for his side to improve further.

Farrell, for instance, is such a force at inside centre and one of the leading contenders for player of the tournament yet he will have only just turned 28 when the World Cup gets underway.

It is frightening to think how good he will be by then and, similarly, think of Itoje’s potential – either as a lock or flanker – with another two years’ experience under his belt.

Furthermore, Courtney Lawes will be 30 and presumably in his prime years while Vunipola – Billy and his elder brother Mako – should also be ripening nicely.

Obviously, some players may not still be a force; will the incumbent full-back Mike Brown still be an automatic choice given he will be 34 when the World Cup next arrives – a fine age for a prop but maybe not a No 15 – while if Jamie George continues his rate of progress can captain Dylan Hartley truly continue as starting hooker?

Yet these, in many ways, are nice problems to have and something that will do little to worry Jones.

The best finishing school for many of this England squad, meanwhile, will be in New Zealand itself later this summer when around a dozen of them could quite conceivably be facing the All Blacks in their own backyard while on British Lions duty.

That should be an invaluable experience for them although, at the same time, it could also prove to be a bigger spear in Jones’s side than any grand slam failure.

If New Zealand do what New Zealand have done to so many opponents before and sweep past the Lions with utter contempt, that could deliver a massive dent into the England contingent’s confidence and belief.

It is why English hopes of World Cup success in 2019 may yet still lie partly in the hands of a Kiwi-born Wales coach by the name of Warren Gatland.

How he manages and utilises them while on the Lions tour this summer will be critical and indeed more important than any one-off Twickenham game for England against the All Blacks that may or may not get shoehorned into the calendar later this autumn.