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Why England appear to be on the brink of rugby greatness
THERE are few things better in sport than to watch a world-class side develop.
We all love to see the finished product, and marvel at the artistry of Barcelona on the football field or the effortless impregnability that Australia's cricketers displayed when they were at their pomp. But there is something even more rewarding about being there to witness the journey, the increasingly inevitable progression that propels a team towards greatness.
These are early days, but with every game that passes, it feels more and more like England's rugby union team are on that journey.
This time last year, Stuart Lancaster's side were showing fleeting signs of potential as they finished second behind Grand Slam winners Wales in the Six Nations. Fielding a youthful squad that marked a clear distinction from the previous regime and its underachievement at the 2011 World Cup, Lancaster earned himself the right to take over as head coach on a permanent basis. His rebuilding project had begun.
Then came the autumn and England's remarkable, record-breaking win over the All Blacks. Suddenly, the pace of progression had accelerated beyond expectation.
Fast forward another five months, and England head into their final two games of the Six Nations chasing a Grand Slam that would represent another notable staging post on their route to the 2015 World Cup on home soil.
Beat Italy at Twickenham and Wales in Cardiff, having already seen off Scotland, Ireland and France, and England will be able to celebrate their first Grand Slam since 2003.
It would be a notable success, although the challenge of toppling a resurgent Wales in the Millennium Stadium, with the Six Nations title potentially up for grabs, means it cannot be taken for granted.
Yet even if England were to fall at the final hurdle in a fortnight's time, that would not change the belief that this is a side that is going places.
Sir Clive Woodward's World Cup winners passed up plenty of Grand Slam opportunities before they finally sealed the deal ahead of their defining moment in Australia.
But just as that England side hinted at greatness at an early stage of their development, so the current team exude an air of almost limitless potential.
It is not so much that they are winning, it is the manner in which they are carrying themselves as they do it. Despite being part of one of the least experienced sides ever to challenge for a Six Nations title, England's players appear to be regarding a Grand Slam as their destiny.
Their self-assurance does not come across in an arrogant way – something that has afflicted many an England team in the past – but instead hints at an innate confidence that can only bode well for the future.
It was apparent in Dublin as England held their collective nerve in atrocious conditions despite a second-half rally that brought Ireland back to level terms just as James Haskell was being sent to the sin bin.
And it was evident again last weekend as England found a way to beat France at Twickenham even though, for the best part of an hour, it was the visitors that were in the ascendancy.
Just as there is an inevitability about Manchester United roaring back in the final stages of matches to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, so it was possible to watch England negotiate the second half of Saturday's game without ever really fearing they were going to lose.
Some teams appear destined to succeed, and increasingly it feels as though Lancaster and his coaching staff are assembling an England side for the ages.
It helps when the talent is there of course, and the unwavering confidence that is apparent within this England squad must surely stem from the quality of players to have emerged in the last 12 months.
Players like Alex Goode, who has proved a revelation at full-back, or Brad Barritt and Manu Tuialgi, whose partnership at centre has evolved dramatically from the days when they were criticised for being mere carthorses.
In Owen Farrell, England finally boast a fly-half capable of slipping into the shoes vacated by Jonny Wilkinson, while at number nine, Ben Youngs is performing the other half-back role with polish and precision.
The forwards have proved equally as effective in the last three matches, with Geoff Parling completing his somewhat unexpected transition into a world-class second row and skipper Chris Robshaw evolving into one of the most influential back rowers in world rugby.
Just as significantly, England's replacements bench is also packed with talent, a factor that made a huge difference when it came to beating France. In the likes of Toby Flood, Danny Care, Mako Vunipola and Tom Youngs, England boast substitutes who would walk into most sides in the northern hemisphere. Given just how attritional the game has become, that could make a huge difference when it comes to the next World Cup.
That, ultimately, is where this side will be judged, and if English sporting history teaches us anything, it is that the greenest of shoots do not always produce a beautiful flower.
Still, this feels like it is going to be something special, and at the moment, that alone is worth celebrating. The journey will not be trouble-free, but it should prove enjoyable all the same.
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