England win the grand slam but now must aim for the next level

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It might be stretching it a bit to say that this was a slam won in the grand manner, because in truth the second half was a laboured affair, with England rarely required to do much more than stop a France team that was growing wearier with every throw into the lineout.

It was here that the difference between the two sides was most obvious with Maro Itoje and – on this day in particular – George Kruis picking off the ball at will. France couldn’t play and England eased to their clean sweep.

To win a grand slam without lighting up the sky is, in a way, a compliment. This was not like the team of 2003 approaching a zenith; this was a team in the throes of rediscovery and reconstruction. They have been uplifted by Eddie Jones, led intelligently – yes, exactly that – by Dylan Hartley and they have sold themselves to the task of making their nation proud of them.

They had to play away from home three times. The overall standard of the championship was far from inspired, but each and every team had set their sights on late September, meaning that all teams were struggling to touch the heights after going from their World Cup campaigns straight back to their clubs and then into this. It’s a gruelling schedule with the potential for mishap at every turn. To go unbeaten is so very difficult, and to find fault would be churlish.

Must there be a but? No. Youngsters were given a chance and came to the fore. Itoje had another fine outing. England tried to be inventive and attack-minded long before Wales, Scotland and Ireland gave themselves licence to thrill in the final round. George Ford refused to be bound by his form at struggling Bath and played with cheek for his country.

Billy Vunipola, held in check here for long periods, has become a model of persistence. Not for the No8 the role of the hit man operating in short bursts, but an indefatigable workhorse, willing to sort out problems – a sponge – and yet able to be a hammer, the launcher of attacks. His surge from the scrum helped to create the try for Anthony Watson. Billy has been a giant.

France came into the Six Nations with a similar background – a World Cup that went wrong and a new coach, Guy Novès, in charge. France ended up losing their last three games, having started with wins at home against Italy and Ireland. They began by unleashing Virimi Vakatawa on a world that knew him only as a sevens player and he sparkled. But by the end of the five games, the wing was stuck too tight to the touchline, unsure of where his parameters lay.

His team, too, seemed unsure of what to do where. They have a grand project to respect the French way of playing, but for the moment it seems too vague. Lying deep and shipping the ball down a line of stationary team‑mates is no real link to the ways of old. France used to throw the ball flat and the players coming from deep had to flow on to it. Vakatawa and Gaël Fickou and Maxime Mermoz and Maxime Médard and Wesley Fofana all had their individual moments, but at no time did they combine and put fear in the minds of their opponents. The France of old used to make even the All Blacks worry, so good were their angles and variations of speed. Not here; not yet.

England from start to finish were clear in their designs and their understanding of what they could and couldn’t do. They were never too ambitious, because Eddie Jones said that it would take time to develop the understanding that must go with the desire to play with total freedom. Ford and Owen Farrell were neat and tidy throughout and Jonathan Joseph had his big day in Rome, but the England midfield looks as if it still waiting for Manu Tuilagi to make his full return.

It may never happen because anybody who is out of the game for a year or more runs the risk of finding it so different that they cannot make up for lost time. England need to have Tuilagi back at full bore on tour, or start to think of a new midfield strategy. Perhaps Elliot Daly will yet have his chance.

There was also a problem with penalties. Maxime Machenaud kicked seven of them. Dan Cole was targeted by the French media before the game as a one-man points-machine – for France. The prop had a say of his own with an almost graceful roll for his try, and it is true that he goes into the areas of contact where penalties can go one way or the other. But as England improve they must be meaner with their gifts.

As they head for the next stage – of being constant on any continent – they must combine a tighter discipline with a greater freedom of expression. Wales, grand slam winners twice under Warren Gatland, have found it difficult to take this step, of going from solid in contact to liberated on the ball. The competition between the neighbours to pass and think under pressure should push them both towards this great next level.

That’s the theory. The grand slam is not an end in itself, but a spur to greater deeds. It’s just that after going five games unbeaten in the oldest annual tournament sometimes you need a break and to be told: “Well done. That was excellent.”

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Eddie Butler at Stade de France, for The Observer on Saturday 19th March 2016 23.51 Europe/London

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