New Zealand gloats as England come up short against Ireland
With no world record or Grand Slam for Eddie Jones's side, is it time for the team to have a new captain?
England's failure to record a world record 19th consecutive victory against Ireland – and secure a second successive Grand Slam in the Six Nations – has prompted a round of introspection in the northern hemisphere and gloating in the south.
Eddies Jones's team lost 13-9 to Ireland in the final match of the tournament. Despite retaining the Six Nations title with plenty to spare, there was a sense of anti-climax about the conclusion of their campaign.
"In 30 years' time most people looking at the 2017 Six Nations table will assume England enjoyed a truly golden season," says Robert Kitson of The Guardian. "Those with longer memories, though, will not forget the hefty dose of perspective dished out by Ireland on the concluding weekend in a contest that left numerous uneasy questions hanging in the drizzly Dublin air.
"When it came to entering Test rugby's hall of fame England badly flunked the admission test."
Brian Moore in the Daily Telegraph was just as frank. "When it comes down to it England just weren't good enough, on the day, to cope with a ferocious and sustained Irish defensive effort that denied them successive Grand Slams," he says.
Defeat exposes the problems facing Jones, says Owen Slot of The Times, and it's time for England to start rebuilding.
"After the autumn, [Jones] declared that England would be quick out of the blocks in the Six Nations, that they would be blowing the opposition away early with their speed and intensity. It sounded brilliant and it looked superb against Scotland, but the rear-view shows that match was the exception, not the rule.
"No performance curve is continuous and, as observed by Jones and his players, you learn from defeat; you can come back better and stronger. However, better and stronger will surely mean a slow evolution of personnel. The end of the winning streak may mean the end of the Dylan Hartley era too."
The captain has sown the seeds of his own downfall, says Slot, by instilling the type of "high performance culture" England once lacked. It's now ingrained in the team and with Hartley's inspirational leadership no longer required it could be time for Jones to turn to a more rounded player in Hartley's position of hooker.
The analysis was less focused in New Zealand where England's failure to break the All Blacks' record of 18 wins was little short of triumphalist.
"Back to square one for England, poor dears," says Chris Rattue of the New Zealand Herald. "I mean no disrespect to the England team, who can only play to their limited skill capacity. But the maelstrom of accolades for such a stilted team, considering the extent of New Zealand's dominance for a long time and the rise of Ireland as classy challengers, has been insulting. The hoopla has been ridiculous."
Eddie Jones and England one game from rugby immortality
England are just one game - 80 minutes - from rugby immortality as the Six Nations enters its final weekend with the world watching.
Beat Ireland in Dublin tomorrow and they will achieve in the words of their coach, Eddie Jones, "greatness", because not only will they become the first country in the 17-year history of the Six Nations to win back-to-back Grand Slams, and they will surpass the All Blacks' record of 18 consecutive Test match wins.
"It's going to be quite an occasion in Dublin so we understand we have to be prepared emotionally, physically and mentally," said Jones. "We've had a really good week's preparation. The intensity of training has been good. The mood in camp has been positive. We're very excited ahead of what is a huge opportunity for the players."
Jones has made two changes to the starting XV that thrashed Scotland last week, bringing in fit-again Billy Vunipola for Nathan Hughes at number eight and and replacing Jack Nowell on the wing with Anthony Watson. Elliot Daly, who was forced off after a heavy tackle last week, is fit to start on the left wing.
When the Six Nations started six weeks ago tomorrow's match at the Aviva Stadium was expected to be a Grand Slam decider but Irish defeats to Scotland and Wales means their overriding aim is to end England's winning run, as they did New Zealand's by beating them in Chicago in November.
"They'll have all guns blazing," said Jones. "They were favourites for the competition but now they're out of it so we're expecting a tough encounter... not having anything to play for means they have the courage to fail which frees them up mentally."
Jones believes England could be "a little bit vulnerable" after last weekend's win against Scotland, which saw them crowned champions with a match to spare. "For us it's getting the right mind-set for the game," said Jones, whose side struggled to overcome France, Italy and Wales earlier in the tournament.
Jones likened the 18-match winning run to climbing a mountain, "where every time you go up it becomes harder and the ground becomes more unstable", and asked what his biggest concern was ahead of tomorrow's clash, he replied: "Complacency is always lurking in the shadows."
Jones was also generous in paying tribute to his predecessor, Stuart Lancaster, sacked after England's dismal 2015 World Cup performance when they failed to get out of the group stage. "Lancaster deserves a lot of credit for bringing most of the guys through," said the Australian. But it's a question that has been taxing the pundits and the public in the 18 months since England last lost a Test match. How much of it is down to Jones and how much to Lancaster, who as his successor pointed out, spotted and developed many of the players now at the heart of the England squad.
The New Zealand press, who know Jones well from his time coaching Australia between 2001 and 2005, believe he deserves most of the acclaim for it's he who has added a mental toughness to the players that was previously absent.
"Self-belief is now so ingrained that they are on the cusp of setting a new record for tier-one test victories," said the New Zealand Herald. "Prior to the arrival of Jones, England were in danger of plunging into a death spiral and morale was low. Things rapidly changed...the difference is Jones encouraged his players to add an even sharper edge, and be more resilient."