Peter Bills: England victory is an enormous step forward

In certain British, Irish and European circles during the course of the weekend, there was some criticism of England’s performance in Cardiff at the start of the new Six Nations season.

Two tries, to be sure, by the increasingly dangerous finisher Chris Ashton. But where was the pizzazz, the dynamic England need to prove themselves serious challengers at the Rugby World Cup later this year?

Well, you can be hyper critical. But for me, this was a mentality of getting a job done and England did it, solidly and professionally. A win, any win was absolutely vital for England in Cardiff. To have lost there again, when they hadn’t won in the Welsh capital since 2003, would have been a disastrous opening to this highly important year.

Cardiff long since became a banana skin for England rugby teams, so any win was of critical importance, especially in these circumstances. If England are to start the long climb back to international rugby respectability, they have to start bossing their own manor.

Nor should we overlook the fact that this has been one of the poorest eras for English rugby, certainly at international level. All that money invested, all those vast salaries paid to Twickenham officials and players alike. And yet, all those defeats, all those failed seasons.

The drought, which began immediately the World Cup was won in 2003, has continued ever since. Not a single Championship title, still less the sniff of a Grand Slam.

So with all this in mind, last Friday at Cardiff represented a match of enormous significance. Had they lost it, England would, in all probability, have been staring at another failed season. But the future already seems so much more alluring with that single victory in the bag.

Of course, there are many areas to improve, aspects of the play on which to work. England still look alarmingly short of true world class at centre, and there is no history of a team with such technically limited centres winning a World Cup.

Mike Tindall’s passing remains often an embarrassment at this level while Shontayne Hape is yet to convince neutral judges that he has the ability to flourish on the Test stage.

Yet there were other compensations. Toby Flood’s clear step forward in the cauldron of the international game was a badly needed fillip, whilst the back three remain one of the most dangerous units in world rugby.

You can debate individual positions and specific players all day long and everyone will have their own views. But what counts ultimately are two things; the team and the result.

By winning, England did what they simply had to do. And their team will be immensely better off psychologically for that.

Sport, any sport played at the highest level, requires the psychological element to be in rude health. England haven’t felt positive about themselves for years, partly because they haven’t been given the necessary structure and pattern behind the scenes, to develop that confidence.

Sacking coaches, chopping and changing captains and personnel are decisions that damage the continuity of any would be successful side or individual. Yet at last, you sense, there is a feeling of stability within the England structure. Martin Johnson’s considerable presence looms increasingly large upon it, and that is no bad thing. England have needed a talisman for an awful long time.

Johnson is the last person who will fool himself as to where England stand at the present time. It’s easy to say, they now have three games at Twickenham by the end of which they should have a hand on the Championship trophy.

Teams of genuine, proven world class might be able to afford that luxury of expectation but England are not yet one of them. They need to focus on every single match because if they don’t, they’re quite likely to end up losing some of them.

There is reason for guarded optimism, there are clear signs of progress. But much, much more remains to be done before tangible results can be seen.

Yet every team has to start somewhere, especially after such a long barren period of failure. Victory in Cardiff was essential in that respect and England achieved it. In the context of the rest of this Championship, the rest of this year and the seasons to come, winning was all that mattered.

Credit Johnson’s men, therefore, that they achieved that first step.