It wasn’t meant to be this way. A third consecutive Six Nations crown was to be the stepping stone to challenge All Black dominance in November. Alas, for Eddie Jones’ England, a stark new reality faces them.
After four rounds of the greatest Test series in rugby, England are as close to crisis as they have been since their World Cup implosion back in 2015.
Truth be told, they are still a long way from ‘crisis’. The prompt arrival of Eddie Jones after the tournament heralded the beginning of the winningest period of Test rugby for the Red Rose and delivered back to back Six Nations titles that included one Grand Slam.
Such was their superiority over the rest, fans were well within their rights to start conversations about England’s claim to be the best Test side in the world, better even than the mighty New Zealand.
While the world rankings continued to show a healthy lead for the southern hemisphere nation, England were bridging the gap to the double-defending world champions.
Now, with ambitions tempered by a pair of defeats, Jones and co. are faced with focusing their attention on something a little more pressing, that being avoiding another Six Nations defeat next weekend.
Not since their two defeats and a draw, back in 2010, has England had to contend with mid-table mediocrity. Indeed, their consecutive titles in 2016 and 2017 were among the most dominant and impressive of recent memory.
Assuming anything other than another series of performances this year was out of the question. Nevertheless, win one round left to go and with the title heading west to Dublin, England run the risk of a losing record in the Championship for the first time since 2006.
On form alone, there is a real chance that Eddie Jones could emulate then boss Andy Robinson, who took over from Sir Clive Woodward and who led England to their two worst Six Nations records ever, those being three defeats from five.
Having moved far beyond those tumultuous days, the thought of a squad so stuffed with quality and ambition even being compared to the side wracked with post-World Cup winning retirements just doesn’t sit right at all.
But sit there it must because despite the all the gains under Jones, England now find themselves on the cusp of emulating those uncomfortable records.
Welcoming Ireland to Twickenham is always one of the biggest and most hyped Tests on the rugby calendar. To do so on St Patrick’s Day, as Ireland bid for a Six Nations Grand Slam makes this tie all the more exciting.
Ireland denied England a similar achievement in Dublin last season and Jones and his squad will certainly be keen to return the favour on Saturday.
Having already relinquished their title without too much of a fight, they will be hell-bent on restoring not only some pride but also in securing those every enjoyable bragging rights over Ireland.
This tie should have been so much more. Fans had dreamed of this being a Championship and possible Grand Slam decider. In truth, the tournament almost deserved as much.
Though while Ireland held up their end of the bargain, securing an impressive 19 points from a potential 20, England’s faltering form makes this tie little more than a grudge match.
Preventing an Irish Grand Slam in London, on their national holiday, will certainly be a motivator for England but a restoration of winning ways and avoiding uncomfortable records will mean far more to a side so accustomed to victory.
Ultimately, it could well be argued that this lacklustre Test series will afford Jones and his squad far more opportunities to learn and grow that another title defence.
They will now be forced to look at their deficiencies far more closely than any win ever would. Though they now firmly reside under a dark cloud, there is a real silver lining to be seen.
Eighteen months out from the Rugby World Cup in Japan, England have the chance to implement changes learned from their defeats. Dare it be said that the results could well be a side that has an even greater chance of truly challenging New Zealand and securing a second World Cup title.