|Max Evans scores for Scotland against James Haskell before England ran out 22-16 winners [GALLO/GETTY]|
It has been a long time coming but, after eight years in the Six Nations wilderness, England are once again the team to beat in Europe.
Sunday’s 22-16 victory over Scotland was hardly impressive but it all but secured their first title since their World Cup-winning year of 2003 and victory over Ireland in Dublin next Saturday would seal the deal with a Grand Slam, just as it did eight years ago.
Then, captained by current manager Martin Johnson, that success catapulted England to glory at the global tournament in Australia and if the class of 2011 still look short of being able to repeat that feat in New Zealand this year, they have come a long way.
“All the guys are pretty flat which is not a bad place after you’ve won four in a row,” Johnson told reporters after Tom Croft’s late try helped drag England past a Scottish team who had lost their previous three championship games and were 16-1 outsiders to record their first win at Twickenham in 28 years.
“France and Ireland have lost close games this weekend so it’s good to be on the other side of it,” Johnson added.
“Teams are seeing what we’re doing and having a plan to stop it, which is a compliment in a way as they probably weren’t doing that 18 months or two years ago.
“We’ve got a good balance but we’ve just got to be a bit smarter.”
England were flat from the start and struggled to lift themselves as they were outfought at the breakdown by the Scots.
They spilled the ball more times than in the previous three games combined and though eventually dominating both possession and territory England created only a handful of good openings.
“There were a lot of turnovers and knock-ons that kept them in the game,” Johnson said. “We did some good things but then one error takes you back 60 yards.
“You need to push them over the edge and we didn’t quite push them but the good thing is we’ve won four in a row and everyone else would like to be where we are.”
England travel to Dublin with a 42-point advantage over Wales and the only way they can be denied the title is if Ireland win and Wales beat France in Paris, with the two results combining to wipe out that differential.
Johnson, of course, will not be thinking of anything but the victory.
“It will be a tough game, we haven’t won there for a while but we know we can play a lot better,” he said.
“In a way I’m happier going to Dublin on the back of that game than if we’d scored a load of points.”
Scotland coach Andy Robinson, sacked as England coach five years ago, was frustrated and particularly annoyed about the 58th-minute sin-binning of flanker John Barclay, with England scoring 10 points during his absence.
“I was very disappointed to lose John at that stage,” Robinson said.
“I had a long chat with the referee and I’ll be talking to Paddy (referees’ chief Paddy O’Brien) about that.”