After creating history in Australia, the reigning Grand Slam champions are well on their way to becoming the very best side in the world - provided they take things slowly...
Room to improve
Given the hyperbole that naturally follows such a monumental achievement, England’s first ever series win in Australia must be treated with context.
The Wallabies – caught cold following six months off and with their foreign-based players unavailable for selection – were clearly not at their best.
The point is, though, that neither were England.
Eddie Jones was undoubtedly trying to keep feet on the ground when pointing out the tourists’ “serious deficiencies in consistency”, even after they had just applied the gloss of a whitewash on Saturday.
But that is not to say that he did not have a point.
England’s narrow shape meant they gave Australia a 10-0 headstart in the first Test, while limp defending in the third gifted their hosts at least two of their five tries.
Yet prior to this tour, England had only ever won three Tests in Australia in more than a century. In just three weeks, that tally has been doubled.
But whereas previous victories felt a bit too close for comfort – none more so than the extra-time drop goal to seal the 2003 Rugby World Cup – this triumph, with a record winning margin in the second Test, was emphatic.
So much so that you get the sense that the series could be played all over again and still end up with the same result.
Fortunate timing this certainly was not.
Finding the right blend
The one criticism of England’s style in winning a first Grand Slam for 13 years back in the spring was that it was somewhat one-dimensional.
A total of 13 tries over five games – two of which were at Twickenham – certainly lent some weight to that argument.
Yet this summer has seen Jones’ side rack up nine in three away to one of the Southern Hemisphere superpowers.
For context, that average of three per match is the same scored against Australia in the World Cup final by an all-conquering All Blacks side at the peak of their powers.
England’s focus on a solid set-piece and ferocious defence is still there, while their ‘Bodyline’ tactics are based on all the grunt for which Northern Hemisphere rugby is so renowned.
This tour, though, has also seen a more expansive approach, proven by the fact that all three of their tries in first Test were scored by outside backs. Even Dan Cole only barrelled over in the final Test after nine flowing phases of play.
They broke the record points total scored against Australia at the start of the tour then smashed it once again at the end, becoming only the fourth team ever to concede 40 points and still win.
England have proven that power and panache are not mutually exclusive, and are increasingly striking the perfect balance.
The stars of England’s success this summer were the same players who have so often been blamed for their underachievement of recent years.
Chris Robshaw, the scapegoat of a horrendous World Cup, was superb in the back row, bettered only by James Haskell who started that tournament on the bench.
Owen Farrell, meanwhile, has provided the perfect foil for an out-of-form George Ford, with his metronomic boot, stubborn defence and ability to play the ball in midfield.
The series victory, though, was very much a squad effort.
Maro Itoje merely confirmed his colossal talent, with his ability to slot in at flanker ensuring that England’s embarrassment of riches in the second row – with George Kruis, Joe Launchbury and Courtney Lawes also competing for places – will never go to waste.
To describe Danny Care as an able understudy would do him a disservice, while Jack Clifford, Elliot Daly and Marland Yarde all offer exciting alternatives
Jamie George, meanwhile – with an audacious chip to set up the decisive try in the second Test and a fortuitous grubber to assist himself in the third – has proved himself to be quite some footballer.
For so long, the perception has been that New Zealand could beat any other side in the world even with their second string.
England may still be some way off that sort of strength in depth, but they are closing the gap.
Not peaking too soon
Having followed up a Grand Slam with a Southern Hemisphere series win, England’s transformation under Jones has been astonishing.
They have climbed to second in the world rankings, with the coach already talking up their intention to “put a real challenge” on New Zealand.
So bring on the All Blacks? Not so fast.
Australia’s struggles have underlined exactly the sort of interruption that a close-season break can bring. England’s next challenge must simply be to pick up where they left off.
Four autumn internationals against South Africa, Fiji, Argentina and the already-conquered Australia might seem relatively tame, but those four matches would allow England to equal their record 14-game winning streak.
After that, they have the chance to become the first team to win back-to-back Grand Slams.
Their best players will then embark on a valuable reconnaissance mission to New Zealand as part of the 2017 British and Irish Lions squad.
There is still plenty of time until the biggest challenges come along, by which time England will no doubt have vastly improved.
When Clive Woodward’s side conquered the world in 2003 they were reaching the end of the road.
Just seven months into a four-year contract, Eddie Jones’ class are just starting out.
Things are coming on nicely.