England Overcome all obstacles
Grand Slam by name, grand by deed. Ignore the naysayers who bleat about the lack of quality in the 2016 championship, true as it is. Dismiss, too, those who might jib at England’s fitful performances, who point out that this is a not a team with swagger and brilliance and all-consuming power.
Those are mere footnotes, caveats to be discussed once due recognition is given. There will be no asterisks next to England’s name in the record books to denote any misgivings. Dylan Hartley’s side have every right to their place in the roll of honour alongside those of Martin Johnson’s 2003 vintage or Will Carling’s triple Slammers of a decade earlier.
This was no fluke, with others merely falling by the wayside to leave England as last man standing. With three matches away from home, and the perennial target on their back for simply being English, Hartley’s men had to contend with significant obstacles, part historical, part of the moment. If England were to be slated for being perennial runners-up, as they were four years in succession, it is only right that they should be acclaimed as the all-conquering victors that they are. That is the only thing that matters.
So, raise a hat, acknowledge that England got across the finishing line even though France roused themselves from their torpor to produce their best performance of the championship. There were three tries scored on the night, 13 across the tournament, only four conceded, statistics that are one mark of a top-end side. But the real indicator that this team merits its accolade is that there is a genuine sense of a collective identity about them.
They know what they are about. They know what it takes to get a job done: be it cussedness against Scotland, rat-a-tat-tat attack against Wales, or the ability to deal with the pressure of the occasion as was amply shown at the Stade de France.
It took a verbal rocket from Eddie Jones, the head coach, at half-time to revive the boldness and conviction of the early games – but England responded. They did not shrivel as they had against Wales in the World Cup. They steadied their gaze, stiffened loins and saw it through. Champion stuff.
There were several notable individual or unit displays, from the burgeoning second-row Saracens duo of George Kruis and Maro Itoje, wreckers of opposition lineout ball, to the churning upfield ploughs of born-again Billy Vunipola, revelling in the freedom of expression granted to him by Jones. He was aided by shotgun riders Chris Robshaw and James Haskell, whose unflinching and unyielding contributions had such an impact. And then there was the shrewd tactical kicking of George Ford, who had his best game of the tournament.
There were differing but equally important cameos from both scrum-halves, try-scoring Danny Care, an opportunist scamper in the 12th minute, and try-creating Ben Youngs, whose vision and deft kick paved the way for yet another try from ace marksman Anthony Watson, his 56th minute touchdown being his 10th in the last 12 games. Dan Cole nabbed the other midway through the first half.
And presiding over it all is the wily, scheming but profoundly impressive figure of Jones. The hired hand from Australia has brought home the booty.
If there was just one element of the night that made the difference, it was Jones’s use of the bench. And by that is meant that he didn’t use it. Or use it by rote, emptied on to the field as is so often seen. Jones had learned his lesson from the previous week when the disruption that is invariably caused by the arrival of so many new players almost cost England dear in the closing stages against Wales.
No Manu Tuilagi. No Elliot Daly. No Joe Launchbury. Only when Robshaw finally fell to his knees in exhaustion four minutes from time did Jones send on Jack Clifford. Joe Marler had replaced Mako Vunipola at half-time as per the plan, likewise soon afterwards Youngs for Care, and the only other change saw Luke Cowan-Dickie come on from the concussed Hartley, felled in a tackle, stretchered off but on his feet to take the trophy.
After so much self-inflicted torment, the Northampton hooker was not going to miss the party even if he might have been seeing two trophies on the podium.
As Ireland and Wales had done in previous last-day Grand Slam missions of 2011 and 2013, France summoned all their tribal disdain for the white shirt and threw themselves into the battle. But England tackled and scragged and kept them out, if not wholly at bay.
As has been shown across this tournament, someone, be it a Watson or a Kruis or a Billy Vunipola will bail them out. Here, it was Care’s scarpering effort. Then a rumble and tumble from Cole. England kept themselves in front again and again.
They deserved every last drop of celebratory drink that might have been taken. This is just the beginning. And they have every right to expect more days such as these.