England’s dream of rugby supremacy lies in ruin today following defeat to France in round four of the NatWest 6 Nations.
Their second successive loss in the competition ended any hopes of an already unlikely title defence, as Ireland swept to another bonus point victory against Scotland, all but claiming the title.
All that stood in the way of the title returning to Dublin for the third time in five years was a bonus point victory for England in Paris.
The misfiring Red Rose, however, fell to a 22-16 defeat to the resurgent French and handed the title to Joe Schmidt’s men without the need for a famous St Patrick’s Day decider at Twickenham.
Now, with little left to play for next weekend, England must sit and endure the salt that is being rubbed into their wounds as following the latest round of Six Nations results, they now find themselves in a position not considered only a handful of weeks ago.
The defeat against France saw England lose precious ground on New Zealand in the world rankings and bring them into the dogfight for the top five places.
Indeed anything other than victory in Paris could allow Ireland leapfrog their neighbours, should they themselves maintain their unbeaten record and defeat Scotland in Dublin.
Having done just that and with a bonus point to boot, the latest world rankings make for uncomfortable reading if you are an English fan.
Rather than reinforcing their assertion that the showdown with New Zealand in November will be the ultimate decider of just which nation rules supreme, a gloomy Monday feels even duller than normal for the English.
Defeat has become an unfamiliar feeling in recent seasons and now, with another loss to swallow, there is a growing realisation that there is still much work to do before a genuine challenge for the number one tag can be mounted.
No longer clear of the pack and in the hunt for New Zealand’s scalp, Eddie Jones and co. have been forced to look over their shoulders once more.
Expect England to regroup, however, and learn from their defeats. They will return a better side, with the tough lessons now coming at the perfect time.
Eighteen months out from the 2019 Rugby World Cup, there is plenty time to apply the lessons of defeat and evolve into a better squad, perhaps one that can indeed challenge the All Blacks on the greatest Test rugby stage.
For France, things are beginning to appear far rosier than they did only six weeks ago. Unable to buy a win and with a squad seemingly in turmoil, the ousting of Guy Noves in favour of Jacques Brunel now seems an inspired move for Les Bleus.
Though they tasted defeat to Ireland and Scotland, victories over Italy and England have given them a renewed sense of optimism and seen them once again rise in the ranks, from tenth to eighth.
Still, with some way to go before they can be considered true contenders for both the Six Nations and the World Cup next year, springtime in Paris comes with green shoots.
For Scotland, their rankings roller coaster continues. Having broken into the top five following their victory over England in round three, defeat to Ireland casts them back down to sixth, behind South Africa.
Townsend’s men have, however, shown they continue to improve steadily and bear all the signs of a side that will trouble and challenge the best in the world in Japan next year.
So, while the often fickle rankings offer different fortunes and outlooks for the Six Nations’ sides, they do offer a reminder to all that there remain fine lines between victory and defeat, between celebration and despair.
Ultimately in terms of the Rugby World Cup, the rankings matter not as with the seedings and groups already long since decided, it will be how each side learns and progresses from their respective defeats and victories that matter most when it comes to mounting a genuine challenge for the Webb Ellis Cup next year.