Neil Back believes England will ultimately benefit from missing out on the Six Nations title, but warns only the Grand Slam is acceptable next year.
Points difference alone sabotaged red-rose hopes of claiming the first Championship crown of Stuart Lancaster’s reign with Ireland’s success resulting in a third consecutive runners-up finish.
Back, a World Cup winner and England’s openside flanker between 1994 and 2003, is encouraged by the progress made during the Six Nations and views the failure to win the title as a blessing.
But with the 2015 World Cup on home soil looming, he insisted England must crush their European rivals next year if they are to be considered genuine contenders.
“Perversely, not winning the Six Nations may have been a good thing because it means the hunger is still there,” Back said.
“Sometimes when a young team win things they can start to gravitate, but this team is still very well grounded. Not winning the Six Nations will have made them even hungrier for next year, and that’s the important one because it’s a World Cup year.
“It’s crucial that England win next season’s Six Nations and the Grand Slam too, to take them into the World Cup. If you want to win the World Cup you must win seven matches and if you can’t defeat Six Nations teams ranked below, then we’ll have a problem winning the World Cup.
“This is a really exciting time and I’m genuinely excited about this England team for the first time since I was last involved.”
Back, who won 66 caps and made five Test appearances for the British and Irish Lions, has been impressed by the development of Chris Robshaw.
Robshaw entered the season with his status as first-choice openside and England captain under threat, but responded with a string of outstanding performances that have placed his position beyond challenge.
“Rightly Chris was left out of the Lions tour to Australia last summer because he wasn’t the best in his position,” Back said. “But he’s gone away, decided that he needs to improve and has worked on those areas.
“There’s been a significant change in his foot speed away from contact and his lines of running. Due to his inexperience the captaincy was a burden, but he’s getting there and is a million miles from where he was two years ago.”
England’s next assignment is a three-Test series in New Zealand and Back views a 2-1 series defeat as a worthy outcome.
“The series begins after the first Test because England will be missing their Premiership finalists, so that game is more of a warm-up,” Back said. “Then the Test series really begins in my eyes and if they can draw that, then they’ll come home with their heads held high. If they manage that, it would be a big statement. Any less than that and we are where we should be, ranked fourth in the world.”
Meanwhile, work on European club rugby’s new elite tournament will be put on hold over the weekend and resume on Monday.
The replacement for the Heineken Cup was expected to be unveiled this week, but it is understood that administrative elements of the agreement have yet to be finalised, resulting in the delay.
Once the paperwork is complete an announcement will be made, with Monday the earliest possible opportunity to declare a ceasefire in the bitter two-year dispute over Europe.
A further delay could be caused by the rugby calendar, however, with the Heineken Cup quarter-finals scheduled to take place next weekend.
European rugby chiefs may decide to hold any announcement until the first knockout round is over out of respect to the competition as it nears its conclusion.
A new 20-team format is expected to have six Premiership teams, six clubs from France’s Top 14 competition and seven of the PRO12 sides qualifying for a competition that would succeed the Heineken Cup.
The final place would be decided after a play-off between this season’s seventh-placed finishers in the Premiership and Top 14.
It is understood an agreement is imminent. Once signed all parties can then chase a resolution between broadcasters BT Sport and Sky, both of whom have indicated a willingness to agree a compromise TV rights deal.
The Six Nations committee is expected to provide the basis of the new governing body, with some existing European Rugby Cup staff retained.