England began the defence of their Six Nations crown with so much ground to make up, the chances of them making history as well seemed more remote than the peculiar planet they had found themselves inhabiting at the World Cup in New Zealand. By chiselling out an exceptional victory in the French capital yesterday, they became the first red-rose side to win three away games in a single championship. It should read rather well on Stuart Lancaster's job application.
The caretaker coach, widely assumed to be competing with the English-born South African strategist Nick Mallett for the right to lead the national team through to the home World Cup in three and a half years' time, said many things in the immediate aftermath of a win that may yet earn his side a shot at the title, but none of them were about the Twickenham vacancy. "It's not about me, or about Andy or Graham either," he remarked, referring to Messrs Farrell and Rowntree, fellow coaches who were flanking him in his moment of triumph.
So it was left to Andy Farrell to do Lancaster's talking for him. Asked what this thrilling, barely dreamt of victory said about the Cumbrian's achievement in building a side worthy of the name from the wreckage of last autumn's campaign in All Black country, the increasingly influential rugby cross-coder reached for his cards and laid them face up on the press conference table. "It's there for all to see," he commented. "Stuart's biggest achievement, without a shadow of a doubt, has been to put some pride back into the England jersey. Not just in terms of the squad, but throughout the country. You can feel a huge surge of support: everyone is enjoying the ride with us. This speaks volumes for him."
Significantly, Rowntree also threw his front-row forward's weight behind Lancaster, who looked distinctly uncomfortable at being praised to the high heavens by his colleagues but just about found a way of living with it. "For a new group of players to come to Paris and perform with such courage in an extremely fierce environment..." said the sole surviving member of the World Cup coaching team. He did not need to complete the sentence. Instead, he added: "A lot of people have spoken a lot of words about England at the World Cup. This result shows how hard we've been working to make the whole of England proud of the team once more."
Not unreasonably, Lancaster took particular pleasure in the performances of the players he has introduced to international rugby in recent weeks: the likes of Brad Barritt and Owen Farrell in midfield, Lee Dickson at half-back, Mouritz Botha and Geoff Parling at lock, the bull-like Ben Morgan in the back row. Morgan, in particular, set the French a series of problems they failed to solve – especially in creating the second of three excellent, long-range English tries.
"In our minds," the head coach said, hinting once again that he considered the back-room operation to be about equality rather than hierarchy, "we never saw any of these people as 'fringe players'. We said from the outset that we would try to build for the future while putting together a team that is about now, and they deserved a chance to get involved. This team was born at our training camp in Leeds six or seven weeks ago and I'm very proud of it."
His words did not quite amount to a public submission to the Rugby Football Union appointments panel – Lancaster has been utterly dedicated to maintaining the integrity of the process by keeping his most meaningful thoughts to himself – but it will be surprising indeed if he does not say something similar when he next meets the five men charged with making the decision: the new Twickenham chief executive, Ian Ritchie, the Bath director of rugby, Sir Ian McGeechan, the Harlequins boss, Conor O'Shea, the World Cup-winning flanker Richard Hill and the governing body's professional rugby director, Rob Andrew.
Can they reject him now, after this? Whatever happens in the final championship match against Ireland at Twickenham this weekend, Lancaster will finish the tournament in credit. He may just finish with a job to call his own into the bargain.
Six Nations: Results so far
France 30-12 Italy, Scotland 6-13 England, Ireland 21-23 Wales; Italy 15-19 England, Wales 27-13 Scotland; Ireland 42-10 Italy, England 12-19 Wales, Scotland 17-23 France; France 17-17 Ireland; Wales 24-3 Italy, Ireland 32-14 Scotland, France 22-24 England.
Remaining fixtures: 17 March Italy v Scotland, Wales v France, England v Ireland.