ENGLAND’S final Six Nations match, the 12-10 defeat to France, was an afternoon of mixed emotions for all concerned.
An attacking display crowned by a fine try offered hope that Martin Johnson can yet mould his squad into a feared force before next year’s World Cup, but there was frustration also in the failure to turn that performance into a win, especially one to deny France the Grand Slam.
And while some individuals in the English set-up ended the tournament with their reputations enhanced, others are facing an uncertain fate as the inquest into England’s largely disappointing campaign begins.
Full-back Ben Foden may turn out to be the biggest winner, earning plaudits for his display in the Stade de France, which he capped by scoring England’s only try in thrilling fashion. The 24-year-old had been pushing for a first international start and his classy, composed showing makes him favourite to keep the place for the summer Tests against Australia.
Foden’s Northampton team-mate Chris Ashton was not far behind. The winger proved he and his club colleague could transplant their intuitive teamwork onto the international stage when he set Foden free to tear past Mathieu Basteraud for his try. A Grand Slam decider against France is a daunting setting for a Test debut and the rugby league convert was not without nervy moments, but he showed more than enough quality to prompt questions about why he was not picked sooner.
Toby Flood was handed his chance to stake a claim for the much-debated fly-half slot in Paris and did so wholeheartedly. He has not won over all of his critics, but the Leicester No10’s role in England’s best attacking display of the tournament by some distance will do his standing no harm. That the team’s improvement came when Jonny Wilkinson was dropped does not bode well for the former golden boy.
Erstwhile captain Steve Borthwick will also have noticed the improvement that coincided with his absence, due to injury. Johnson has stuck by the lock throughout a deluge of criticism but faces a huge call on whether to recall him in the summer. Director of elite rugby Rob Andrew has been thrust reluctantly into the foreground by fresh criticism of his regime. Andrew will now compile a report on England’s performance in the tournament. His opponents, among them former England captain Lawrence Dallaglio, believe he, not Johnson or his coaches, should take responsibility for a dire season and fall on his sword.