So the form-horses have cantered into the semi-finals, notwithstanding sterling efforts from Ireland, Scotland and Wales, who leave the World Cup honourably.
Instinctively, we sympathise with the underdog in any competition, and there were times yesterday when this almost overcame English nationalism. Wales had nothing to lose, and, in playing their brand of attacking rugby, they contributed hugely to a lively quarter-final.
They were rewarded by becoming the first side since France in February this year - 14 games ago - to run three tries past the usually formidable England defence. With a little more composure, Wales might have had more. Further points were certainly available if they had kicked their goals, and then Wales could have taken this game to the very edge.
As it was the match's dynamics dictated it was not to be. Quite simply it is impossible to win if your opponents have twice as much possession and territory as you. It is also not made easier when the penalty count is three-to-one against, Oh yes, and there happens to be a certain Jonny Wilkinson, with a success rate just one kick short of perfect, in the opposition's team. A situation that is made worse when your own kicker is missing out.
This, though, was the only way that England were going to win, since their attack was barren. Their solitary try depended on the mercurial running of Jason Robinson, to whom the Welsh insisted on kicking the ball despite his reputation for running it straight back. When the chasers were absent for once, Robinson helped turn the tables, and the game, in creating a try for Will Greenwood.
Nevertheless, Wales will be proud of their effort, they have increasingly "found themselves", in playing terms, and their performances have improved week on week, blossoming against the favourites, New Zealand and England. It was always a tall order, but in both games they knocked on the winners' door for a time.
An exciting style of play has been found which can be further developed, based on improving skill and fitness levels. The new regional structure in Wales is expected to provide this, along with more control of play, through regular games of high intensity. That element was missing at times against England and scoring opportunities went astray.
For England we had yet another game won, the result seemingly dependent on Wilkinson, thereby prompting some head-shaking regarding performance. Still, a win is a win and the team marched on, and against good opposition.
Domination in contact allowed more "go-forward" in this game. As a result, the strong running of Lawrence Dallaglio was in evidence, backed by Mike Tindall and sharp breaks from Matt Dawson. However, that bit of creativity and penetration was missing to finish off the excellent approach work. At times the attack line looked constipated, with the playmaking of Wilkinson again elbowed to one side by other blinkered first receivers.
The introduction of Mike Catt in the second half improved things. With England going forward he can take the ball flat and cross the gain line quickly, which he demonstrated with one scything break. Then there was his punting downfield for field position which gained big yardage in support of revised England tactics. With Wales struggling in the line-out and the referee in hot pursuit of them with his whistle, a now relaxed Wilkinson was able to take charge of the scoreboard with his kicking.
So Clive Woodward's side have a further week to search for their own holy grail - the high level of performance they had produced leading up to the tournament, but which has since eluded them.
They are going forward with plenty of possession, it is the lack of tries which is the major issue. At present Greenwood's key ball-playing creativity is missing. Whether this is a question of loss of form or whether it has been crowded out by over-eager ball-runners is not clear. But this situation needs to be resolved and, to this end, the advent of Catt against Wales gave clarity as to the way forward. His presence lifted a weight of responsibility off Wilkinson's shoulders with the shared execution of tactics and decision-making.
Additionally, with opposing defences so well organised there is always the need for more driving forward play from line-outs. Therefore, there may be adjustments in both personnel and tactics. With three tries conceded the defence will need to be examined and tightened in advance of the semi-final against a buoyant France.
It was probably one game too far for Ireland following the tough consecutive encounters against Argentina and Australia, which were draining both mentally and physically. They were overcome by the French who ran up a big lead with clinical execution of their game plan in the first half, which then allowed them to coast to the finish.
Quite simply Brian O'Driscoll and co were unable to disrupt the flow of Les Bleus, who were backed by an outstanding goal-kicking performance by Frédéric Michalak.
The question is was this a true test for England's next opponents? France were apparently able to implement their training ground practice in this Test match, such was the low level of resistance they encountered. However, evidence still points to France improving as the tournament progresses.
The same must be said of New Zealand, who dispatched South Africa. Lessons were learned from their shock against Wales, and consequently the All Blacks have tightened their forward play and were able to put down the expected strong challenge from the South African forwards with some ease. They now look forward to their game with their fierce rivals Australia.
The Scots were brave to the end, taking the battle to Australia, and exploiting weak forward play. Their pack took on the Aussies, but the Scottish back play was not incisive enough to capitalise on that. They therefore had to rely on Chris Patterson's kicking, until the try at the end.
Who would want to spend an evening with Lote Tuqiri, Wendell Sailor and the emerging David Lyons running at and over you? That is what the All Blacks can now contemplate.
Jack Rowell, Bath's director of from 1995 to 1997.Reuse content