LONDON (AP) — One seismic win over New Zealand has flipped England from a work in progress to a major force in world rugby, ramping up expectation levels and making Stuart Lancaster's side the team to beat in the Six Nations.
France was the most consistent of all the European teams during the November internationals, winning all three matches including a hammering of Australia, but England's record 38-21 victory over the world champions was too incredible to be glossed over.
And with the French — notoriously flaky travelers — having three away games in their schedule, it could well be defending champion Wales which pushes the English all the way when competition starts this weekend.
"The trick now is to build on that All Black performance and get the consistency we need to win at the highest level," Lancaster said. "And there's no better place to prove yourself than the Six Nations."
With four different champions over the past four years, the only predictable thing about the annual northern hemisphere competition is that Italy and Scotland will again be scrapping to avoid last place come the final round of matches on March 16.
Before then, some key questions should have been answered. Can the Welsh rediscover their best and end a run of seven straight losses that plunged the team into the third tier of seeds for the 2015 World Cup?
Will Ireland's players transfer their form for their provinces onto the international stage? Will the mercurial Frederic Michalak, a scrumhalf for Toulon these days, hold himself together in the pivotal flyhalf position for France and fire its exciting back line?
And can England handle the increased pressure after its demolition of the All Blacks? "England, with their performance against New Zealand and three home games, they are the favorites," France coach Philippe Saint-Andre said. "We are outsiders — but the French like to be outsiders."
The appointment of the unheralded Lancaster as coach after England's troubled World Cup campaign in New Zealand has been a masterstroke by the oft-troubled Rugby Football Union. Players now play for the jersey, misbehavior among the squad has been stamped out and a string of talented youngsters such as Joe Launchbury, Owen Farrell and Alex Goode have been given their head.
The result? A second-place finish in the 2012 Six Nations, competitive performances in a series loss in South Africa in June and then that famous win at Twickenham, where New Zealand was blown away. Like last year, renowned figures from the sporting world have been summoned to speak to England's squad before the start of the tournament, explaining what it means to represent your country. This time round, it was the turn of former England cricket captain Andrew Strauss and Tony Minichello, the coach of Olympic heptathlon champion Jessica Ennis.
"Speaking to people at grassroots rugby, people are optimistic with what we are doing, trying to take a young group of players through to the World Cup," Lancaster said. "We are still on that path . we've talked about hitting the ground running in the Six Nations."
France is on a four-match winning run going back to the tour of Argentina in June, and has a squad bursting with talent and battle-hardened players from a tough Top 14. When it comes to Les Bleus, doubts will always remain about their consistency. In 2011, they lost to Italy for the first time in the Six Nations then were humbled by Tonga in the group stages of the World Cup — before going on to reach the final of the tournament, losing narrowly to New Zealand.
"The big problem for French rugby is consistency," Saint-Andre said. "On our best day we can beat the best in the world, on our worst we can lose to anyone. "It's a big step this Six Nations because we have three away games. We did well in the autumn but we were at home."
The enigmatic Michalak used to typify France, starring one minute and imploding the next. Yet, he is in arguably the best form of his career and was one of the team's top players in November. "A flyhalf is like a good French wine — the older you are, the better you are," Saint-Andre said. "I think his view of rugby now is totally different."
The crunch match of the tournament could be England vs. France at Twickenham on Feb. 23. The upcoming British and Irish Lions tour of Australia looms large over the Six Nations. Players' performances will be scrutinized even further while Wales will be without head coach Warren Gatland, who will be in charge of the Lions and is assessing potential squad members over the next two months.
Wales will instead be led by Gatland's assistant, Rob Howley, who needs to turn round the team's dreadful run of results that included home losses to Samoa and Argentina in November. "We might not have done as well results-wise in the last six months, but a lot of those results have been by one or two points and could easily have gone our way," Wales captain Sam Warburton said. "That is the fine line of international rugby."
There is change elsewhere, with Ireland having a new captain in No. 8 Jamie Heaslip — replacing the recently fit-again Brian O'Driscoll — and Scotland with a new coach in Australian Scott Johnson. The Scots finished last in 2012 after losing to Italy on the final weekend and they are in disarray ahead of the new tournament.
"We are happy to go in as the poor little boys on the block," Johnson said. "Rest assured, come game time, we won't be the poor little boy." Italy starts with a home match against France on Sunday. On Saturday, England hosts Scotland in international rugby's oldest fixture and Ireland travels to Wales.