EVEN before defeat against Ireland, Warren Gatland planted the seed, suggesting England could be heading for six successive losses.
In fairness to the Wales coach, his comment wasn’t random meddling but in response to England chief Eddie Jones’ insulting remark about his adopted country.
However, with the Red Rose duly humbled at home by Ireland on Saturday, the team tipped by many to challenge New Zealand for next year’s World Cup, have indeed now lost three consecutive matches.
It is certainly new ground for Jones, the Australian who has enjoyed such success since taking over at the end of 2015, and with a tricky tour of South Africa looming this summer you can understand Gatland’s point about it soon becoming six.
“I don’t know why he would be talking about our games; he coaches Wales,” was England winger Jonny May’s response.
“We’ll see. I’d be surprised if you don’t see a response from this group. I’m sure we’re going to get better. I’d back us every time.
“We haven’t expected to lose any of these games we have but we’ll keep working. I know that we are good enough to beat anybody – that’s the belief in our group.
“There will definitely be more focus on us now – the pressure is going to come on this group because of the nature of what has happened.
“This is why we need to stay tight and focus on what we can control and just treat them as separate games of rugby where we want to get better and win.”
After defeats in Edinburgh and Paris were compounded by that 24-15 loss at Twickenham, England suffered their worst championship finish since 1983.
You can’t forget what we have done and what we can be but we have to start from the bottom up again.Jonny May
Understandably, three consecutive Tests against the Springboks, starting in Johannesburg on June 9 before trips to Bloemfontein and Cape Town, suddenly looks slightly more taxing for a side that lost just once in Jones’ opening 25 games in charge.
However, Leicester Tigers star May – who scored England’s third try in injury-time as they sprang to life too late on Saturday – views it differently.
He said: “It’s a great opportunity. If we were to go out there and win a series then it would definitely be a step back in the right direction after taking a bit of a hit.
“We have a lot of rebuilding to do because three (losses) in a row isn’t good enough.
“You can’t forget what we have done and what we can be but we have to start from the bottom up again.
“We’re not back at square one but we’ve definitely taken a dip.
“With that comes an opportunity to focus and learn and get better.
“This team is still going to get better – there’s no doubt about that – but we were flying high and it’s going to take some hard work and a run of good games to get back to where we need to be before the World Cup.”
Despite injuries to some key players, England had started as favourites to make it three consecutive Six Nations championship title wins.
Asked if he could believe, then, what had happened to England over the last month, May conceded: “You wouldn’t have guessed it, would you?
“It’s not what any of us were thinking would happen but there’s been a couple of areas that we’ve mentioned.
“The breakdown was better today but discipline killed us, especially against an Ireland team that thrives off penalties.
“They’ll get some territory, put up a high ball, drive you back, get another penalty – that kind of thing.
“It’s frustrating because it’s the type of thing we talk about in the week to look out for at the weekend but there was some better things today and you can’t question the character and the ethic of the boys.
“We’re a good group of guys and the run we’ve had, we’ve hit a bit of a speed bump but I have no doubt that the way we work and the group of boys that we’ve got we can keep getting better and learn from this.”
It remains to be seen if some will get that chance, though. Jones hinted that some of the fledgling players in his squad may not have enough time to get ready for the World Cup in Japan in 18 months. Having won his 34th cap, May does not fall into that category, but there are likely to be casualties. “He hasn’t said that to us,” said the 27-year-old.
“It’s the same for all of us. We have to go back to our clubs and prove we are good enough to get picked and hopefully he’ll pick us. You’re never guaranteed to be in this group. Selection is for Eddie to worry about, not us.”
England and Bath winger Anthony Watson’s season has been ended by an Achilles injury.
The 24-year-old was hurt during the first half of England’s defeat to Ireland on Saturday.
“Anthony has been in superb form this year, and we’re obviously really disappointed to have lost him at a critical part of the season,” said director of rugby Todd Blackadder.
Watson has scored 15 tries in 33 Tests for England.