As they stood exhausted at performance base camp, England surveyed the scenes of Irish Grand Slam euphoria on Saturday night and wearily recognised the long, steep climb ahead of them.
A year ago, the national team had been awkward bystanders at a French clean-sweep party and here they were again, forced to watch opponents covered in ticker-tape and dancing around with the Six Nations trophy.
While the home fans were still thronging the stands, waving flags and singing along to Freed from Desire, England head coach Steve Borthwick was already plotting where his team go from here.
For the victors, this was a fourth Slam and a resounding endorsement of the way Andy Farrell is driving them to new heights. For the vanquished, there was a restoration of some honour after the record mauling at the hands of France a week earlier.
Having battled valiantly for half the match with 14 men, after Freddie Steward’s red card, England went out on their shields at least, but there is no disguising the scale of the task that awaits them.
Steve Borthwick says his side must ‘learn faster than any one else’ after poor Six Nations
England were beaten by 29-16 by Ireland to finish fourth in the 2023 Six Nations standings
The result saw Ireland claim the Six Nations championship and the Grand Slam championship
As the dust settles on a third unsatisfactory Six Nations of two wins and three defeats, Borthwick will demand his players go back to their clubs and commit to making up a fitness deficit.
That is stage one of an urgent mission to elevate them from lower mid-table in Europe’s annual championship to becoming competitive, dangerous outsiders at the World Cup.
England ticked the minimum-requirement box on Saturday by fighting the good fight. Their fired-up ferocity made the hosts look decidedly ordinary and nervous for long periods before pulling away in the closing stages.
But Borthwick recognises various glaring shortcomings and cannot fix them all during pre-World Cup training camps, so he needs his squad to take matters into their own hands.
‘We have to make sure we get the condition of the players right and they come into camp in a really good condition so we can push on,’ he said.
‘We don’t want to spend the World Cup camp trying to get fit. We want to use the World Cup camp to get better.
‘Once the players leave tomorrow and return to their clubs, we have no control over them. We will have conversations with the players and with their clubs about what we would like, but ultimately we don’t have any control over that.’
The scramble to transform the national team has to go hand-in-hand with the bigger picture issue of co-operation between clubs and country.
Borthwick needs the help of Premiership coaches and directors of rugby at a time when a new long-term agreement about player access is being ironed out.
‘Hopefully working together, the RFU with the PRL, we will be able to develop a system that enables the club game and international team to thrive,’ he said.
Frankly, he probably should not hold his breath about the prospect of a structural overhaul. Small-print details of the financial terms will be tweaked, but that is about it.
Borthwick demanded his players work on their fitness to come into camp better prepared
Borthwick also admitted that his side’s attack ‘has not been good enough’ winning two games
A revolution is not in the offing to ensure the English system is aligned, like it is in Ireland. There will not be central contracts and there is unlikely to be a sudden willingness to let Borthwick pick whoever he wants, even if they are based abroad.
Focusing on team performance, England are a long way adrift of Europe’s duopoly. Ireland and France are Northern Hemisphere standard-bearers and behind them is a gap to Scotland, then England and Wales.
‘We have got to learn faster than anybody else,’ said Borthwick.
That goes for the players when they return to camp, but also the coaching staff, who will have to evolve and adapt in a hurry.
Richard Cockerill is off to Montpellier and someone will be brought in to fill the void, potentially Saracens scrum coach Ian Peel.
Richard Wigglesworth will join the England set-up at the end of the season to add his nous and technical expertise in relation to the team’s skills and kicking game, but it remains to be seen if Nick Evans will have any further involvement as attack coach or return to Harlequins full-time. Whoever fills that role has so much work to do.
‘Attack is always the element of the game that takes the greatest amount of time together to build,’ said Borthwick. ‘We’re going to have to accelerate that. It has been quite clear it hasn’t been good enough in this Six Nations, but we have been trying to put the foundations in place.’
So much of the focus has been on selection at No 10, but the landscape is shifting quickly in that area. Owen Farrell was impressive on Saturday in the way he led England with relentless energy and passion and stroppy, combative intensity.
For now, he is pencilled-in as the likely starting fly-half and after Marcus Smith was an unused replacement, there is every chance that George Ford will have a chance to usurp him ahead of the World Cup.
Frankly, Borthwick has more pressing issues at No 8 and scrum-half, where Alex Dombrandt and Jack van Poortvliet must be under significant pressure.
Zach Mercer has a prime chance to seize the starting place at the base of the scrum after his summer return from Montpellier, while Alex Mitchell and Raffi Quirke can provide alternatives as a half-back partner to Farrell.
The good news from this campaign was the re-emergence of Ollie Lawrence and how Ollie Chessum made his mark before suffering a cruel injury.
But there are so few selection certainties, still, outside of the front five and full back.
Borthwick has had some selection headaches this campaign switching fly-halves several times
But there is a lot of work to do with the 2023 World Cup now less than six months away
The World Cup starts in five-and-a-half months and there are just four half-baked friendlies left.
Borthwick is taking heart from his experience as a player, when England lost their 2007 World Cup opener 36-0 against South Africa and rallied well enough to reach the final.
‘It crossed my mind this week, that game, after last week’s performance,’ he said.
That was a miraculous turnaround, but Borthwick has his work cut out if he is going to preside over another one in his new role. What a climb awaits.