Any successful team has a journey to go on and there will be hiccups along the way. Take Wales over the past year – their form was up and down like a yo-yo before Saturday's glorious finale for the men in red. For any successful side the lessons to be learnt in defeat are huge and if those lessons are understood by Stuart Lancaster's young side then this can prove a crucial staging post en route to a bright future.
Lancaster has stuck with a team he wants to take through to 2015 and Wales will have taught him a few things about who has the ability to perform on the biggest stage. In certain positions there were a few harsh realities but I believe ultimately England will look back on this game as a turning point. The World Cup-winning side of 2003 had more than one loss like this to deal with and it helped create the team that won in Australia. Three Grand Slams slipped away in 1999, 2000 and 2001 before they won it in 2003. It teaches you not to let the moment get to you, how to deliver on those high-octane occasions.
Don't get carried away with one defeat. Lancaster and his coaching staff know it is a journey. When I said before the match that England winning the Six Nations rather than the Grand Slam was a better outcome for them, the point I was trying to make was that this is all about that long process and what you learn along the way to having a go at your ultimate goal: the 2015 World Cup on home soil. What happened on Saturday can contribute towards making that a happy ending. Now they know the pressure of the biggest stage and all the surrounding elements that come with that, the passion that will always be deployed against England. It can only be a good lesson for Lancaster.
There is the nucleus of a good squad here but you can get carried away by the rate of England's progress. The nation went from watching a team produce two ordinary performances against South Africa and Australia – who, remember, had just been thumped by France – and being one game away from a poor autumn, to hammering the world champions. The euphoria of that win over New Zealand changed expectations massively. In reality, there is still a long way to go. This is a gradual process – expectation can often outweigh reality. England have finished second in each of Lancaster's two seasons – one game away from the Grand Slam in both, which is still an achievement.
There are elements for England to take out of Saturday. The defence in the first half was excellent. For 60 minutes it was a great game but once Wales scored that first try, that was it. It was frustrating for England, but when you play at the highest level it is about getting the little things right. England did not do that and ultimately they were beaten by a better side. Defensively England made errors, which has been uncommon for them, and they had a bad day in the scrum.
In key positions there are quite a few young guys who had not played in these sort of games before – a championship decider with a Grand Slam on the line is a different sort of pressure to playing an autumn international against the Kiwis. Experience matters and you can make a case for that being an important factor in what happened in Cardiff but I don't see it as the be all and end all. It did contribute and there were many guys new to playing in the Millennium, who perhaps didn't realise the full extent of the ferocity with which an England v Wales game in Cardiff is played out.
Winning a Grand Slam is a huge undertaking. It is very rarely done and because it requires you to perform at the absolute best of your abilities for every match, by the end of the Italy game you could see that England were starting to become drained after a long, intense campaign.
Do not take anything away from Wales, in fact England can learn from their turnaround. This was a side that got it right as the tournament went on. They were unrecognisable from the XV that started out being run ragged in that opening half against Ireland. Hats off to them for turning it around and then delivering in style. Choosing Sam Warburton – a player who sums up the Welsh recovery in the tournament – at No 6 was key as he and Justin Tipuric had blinding games. Tipuric has played himself into Lions contention.
Forza Italia at last
It has not been a vintage championship – the nature of northern hemisphere rugby means there will rarely be a try-fest – but there was one hugely encouraging feature, and one that is good for the global game. Italy's form has been a revelation and if they can build on this it is just what the sport needs, another nation that can challenge any side it faces on any day.
The improvement is summed up by winger Giovanbattista Venditti, who looks a real threat. All of a sudden there is a boldness and invention to their game that has not been there before. It is a real positive for the tournament and now there truly are no easy games in the Six Nations.
Must do better: three areas for england to improve
The back three
Mike Brown and Alex Goode have been very solid but whether that is the combination for 2015 remains to be seen. Ben Foden needs to be in the squad, pushing all of them for their places. At his best he is just electric. Chris Ashton is certainly out of sorts and is clearly finding it very, very tough – when wingers are not scoring you can see the frustration mounting. He still has the ability but it's not working now.
This is a particular area of concern for England. The scrum had been seen as one of England's strong areas but they spent a chastening afternoon being given the pusharound by the Wales eight. I would have Courtney Lawes, with his extra bulk, back in the second row as one change, although Joe Launchbury and Geoff Parling have had good seasons. There is nothing like real competition for places to raise the levels.
Manu Tuilagi and Brad Barritt lost out to the Welsh centres. Barritt has been a stalwart for Lancaster but there are players with more all-round creative ability. Billy Twelvetrees has come in and done well. I still see Jonathan Joseph as one long-term answer.
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