Rome: England coach Stuart Lancaster put aside the loss of the Six Nations title to Ireland on Saturday to express confidence and pride in a youthful side who will next face the formidable challenge of a three-Test series in New Zealand.
A potent England scored seven tries on their way to steamrollering their way through a limp Italian defence and a 52-11 win at the Stadio Olimpico to raise hopes of a last day hold-up for the title.
However, Ireland requiring only a win in Paris, survived a late France fightback to clinch a 22-20 win after a nail-biting finale which saw them crowned thanks to points difference.
For the third year running England, who beat Ireland, Scotland and Wales leading into Saturday’s clash, finished runners-up. Lancaster and his squad watched events in Paris unfold on television on the sidelines of a post-match function where a celebratory press event was promptly cancelled on the final whistle.
Yet even before then, the England coach looked buoyed after a performance that, ahead of England’s hosting of the World Cup next year, also bodes well for the more immediate challenge of a summer tour of New Zealand.
“Huge progress,” Lancaster said immediately after the game when asked about England’s development since being run close by Italy a year ago in an 18-11 win at Twickenham.
“It’s a young team with an average age of 24 so when you to put things into perspective I think we’ve made great progress.”
Despite coming under some criticism for emptying the bench late on against Italy, Lancaster said he was looking at the longer term.
“I am very proud of what we have achieved over the tournament, both in how this young group has developed and also our intent to play attacking rugby,” he added.
“We haven’t got everything right in every game, but when you put everything into perspective we have made great progress. Our intent to attack, the quality of our defence and set-piece has been excellent.
“We are in good shape going forward, particularly with quality additions to come back into our squad who we know already are on their way back. With other guys coming back from injury we are massively excited about the New Zealand tour which will give us further options to grow as a team.”
Backs coach Andy Farrell, whose 22-year-old son Owen claimed a total of 22 points on the day said England would not be lacking in confidence.
“There’s another challenge coming on and they’re certainly looking forward to it, there’s no doubt,” said Farrell.
“They’ve improved now and, time and time again when something’s put in their way, they rise to the occasion and take it on.”
Italy coach Jacques Brunel, meanwhile, admitted the Azzurri faced searching questions about their ambitions after collecting their first wooden spoon since 2011.
“It will be difficult to retain anything positive from our tournament. We’ve gone backwards in terms of our objectives and also in terms of what we achieved last year,” said the Frenchman, who led Italy to a fourth-place finish in 2013 thanks notably to wins over France and Ireland.
“I saw the team struggling after the first 25-30 minutes. I don’t know where our ambition to play went. Over the past months factors have conspired to make us less of a threat than usual.
“The most important thing is for the team to know which direction it wants to go in.”