Alastair Hignell: The season is finally over and we're thankful for small mercies
BE thankful for small mercies. Saturday's draw against South Africa was hardly a thing of beauty, but it as also a match that England could easily have lost.
Although it wasn't a victory, it did prevent a series whitewash, the fate which befell both Wales in Australia and Ireland in New Zealand.
Even though the series result was the smallest crumb of comfort for England, at least they didn't board the plane thinking that they never had the slightest chance of winning the series.
That thought will prey on the minds of Welsh players for years to come. They had the beating of Australia in both the second Test – which they lost to an injury-time penalty by replacement Mike Harris – and the third, which the Wallabies edged by a single point.
Dyson DC50i - Bagless upright vacuum cleaner - BALL Technology -...View details
Thisi is Dyson's smallest upright vacuum cleaner with the performance of a full size upright machine. The DC50i has Dyson's most advanced cleaner head technology and 2 Tier RadialTM cyclones.
Terms: LIMITED STOCK OFFER. FREE delivery to most UK postcodes - Next working day dispatch.
Contact: 01664 491439
Valid until: Monday, May 27 2013
And at least England have the satisfaction that they weren't humiliated. Ireland might have given the All Blacks the fright of their lives in the second Test, but they were taken apart in the third – embarrassed to the core by a record 60-0 drubbing. Ireland had the longest flight home. They can recover from jet-lag. They may never get over the psychological wounds inflicted in Hamilton.
England can take cold comfort, too, from the fact that none of their players fell apart on the big stage. South Africa's goal-kicker Morne Steyn might have kicked a penalty from his own half to beat the 2009 Lions, but against England in 2012 he was the palest shadow of his former self. In the second Test, he fluffed several kickable penalties that should have taken the Springboks out of sight.
In the third his insecurity in front of the posts spread to the rest of his game. To put it bluntly, he had a shocker.
And, so too, did his coach. Why Heyneke Meyer kept the hapless Steyn on the pitch will forever remain a mystery. It wasn't as if he was short of a goalkicker.
Ruan Pienaar, whose nerveless prowess in front of goal had propelled Ulster to the Heineken Cup Final, was on the Port Elizabeth pitch from just after half-time.
It wasn't as if Meyer was short of options at outside-half. The 22-year-old Elton Jantjes had been drafted into the squad for just such an eventuality.
Meyer's reluctance to give him his debut will have done nothing for the player's confidence and given plenty of ammunition to critics already accusing the former Bulls coach and his selectors of regional bias. And at least the season is finally over. A year and a week after they assembled for pre-World cup training, England's players – and those who coach them, select them and report on them – are officially allowed some down-time. Before they head off to the beach they might, as Lancaster has already committed himself to doing for the tour itself, take time to reflect on the year as a whole.
It would be very easy to forget that this time last year, England were making even more positive noises than they are now. Martin Johnson's men had just won the Six Nations' championship and they entertained high hopes of making their mark on a World Cup whose last two finals they had reached.
They had what they thought was a good mix of old hands – World Cup winners like Jonny Wilkinson, Mike Tindall and Steve Thompson – and rising stars like Ben Youngs, Chris Ashton, Manu Tuilagi, Dan Cole and Courtney Lawes. They were the best-resourced Union in the world and in the Aviva Premiership they had what they thought was the most competitive club competition in the sport.
The continued failure of English clubs to compete at the business end of the Heineken Cup may cast some doubt on the latter assumption, but the first part of that premise still holds true.
Youngs, Ashton and company are all a year older and, in international rugby terms at least, a lot wiser.
The blood-letting at the top of the Union – new chief executive Ian Ritchie is still putting the administrative house in order – has had little effect on the players, while the appointment of a new and untried coach, accompanied by a sweeping change of playing personnel, has had little effect on results.
England finished second to Grand Slam winners Wales in the Six Nations, and there was no disgrace in that. Although they still haven't beaten South Africa since 2006, Saturday's draw put an end to a nine-match losing sequence.
Be thankful for small mercies.