England journey just beginning
Lots of people will be asking the question this week, ahead of England's Six Nations trip to Dublin: how does the current side compare to the last Red Rose outfit to win a Grand Slam, way back in 2003?
But as much as it is fun to draw parallels between sides of different eras, in this case the exercise is specious. As former England skipper Lawrence Dallaglio deadpanned: "There are similarities - they play for England and they're going for a Grand Slam in Dublin. That's about it."
"It's pretty unkind to compare the two sides," Dallaglio, a key part of the last England team to win in Dublin eight years ago, told BBC Sport. "The England team in 2003 were at the end of the journey, were the number one team in the world and had been for the previous three years.
"They went into the Six Nations as red hot favourites and into the World Cup later that year as favourites, having beaten Australia and New Zealand down under. This England team has made huge progress in the last 12 months, but it is still at the start of the journey."
"We're at a very early stage," said England scrum coach Graham Rowntree. "We've put some very good spells together in this championship, but we haven't done the full 80 minutes. We'll know where we are on Saturday night."
Members of England's 1999 Six Nations team, who had their hearts broken by Wales in 1999
Without wishing to tempt fate, this current England crop more closely resembles the side beaten by Wales at Wembley in 1999, when a late Scott Gibbs try ruined England's Grand Slam dreams.
England circa 1999 already contained the spine of what would become a truly great side - the classic back-row combination of Dallaglio, Richard Hill and Neil Back; Matt Dawson at scrum-half; Will Greenwood in the centre (although he was injured for the Wembley engagement); old warhorses such as Jason Leonard and Mike Catt; Johnson, the thumping heartbeat of the side; a callow Jonny Wilkinson.
And there were more kids on the periphery waiting to break through: prop Phil Vickery, wing Dan Luger, full-back Josh Lewsey, flanker Joe Worsley, all of whom would play a part in England's World Cup-winning campaign of 2003.
"We've got a lot of young lads," added Rowntree. "Dylan Hartley is only 24, Toby Flood is only 25, Alex Corbisiero is still only 12 (the London Irish prop is actually 22). But we've got experience, people like Wilko, Steve Thompson, Lewis Moody, Mike Tindall, all World Cup winners, and that's all great for the balance of the side."
Like the current England team - and unlike in 2003 - that 1999 group was just striking out on its journey, and there would be plenty of knocks along the way before ultimate glory would befall it. A quarter-final defeat by South Africa at the World Cup followed calamity at Wembley, and they would also be denied Grand Slams in Edinburgh in 2000 and Dublin in 2001.
Scrum coach Graham Rowntree with England's precocious front row - and 2003 World Cup survivor Simon Shaw
Dallaglio said: "We would rather have won those games, but it's how you learn from the setbacks. Short-term failure inevitably assisted us on the road to long-term success. It gave us the experience, and maybe even the desire, to really come together."
If coach Johnson's England are to develop into a side anything like as effective as the World Cup-winning vintage, then some of the squad's fine young players will have to grow into great ones, just as happened between 1999 and 2003. And that is not beyond the realms of possibility.
In 21-year-old scrum-half Ben Youngs, contemporary England have a player at least as talented as Dawson. Flying wing Chris Ashton, still only 23, has it in him to be every bit as potent as Jason Robinson. The front row of Hartley, Corbisiero and Dan Cole is unfeasibly young, yet mightily effective.
The 'holy trinity' of Back, Dallaglio and Hill would be difficult to match by any nation in any era, but the good news is competition for places is beginning to create a froth. Add to Nick Easter, James Haskell and Tom Wood, who started against Scotland last week, the names of injured skipper Moody and the returning Tom Croft and Courtney Lawes and it is starting to look like a dog-fight.
"England are growing the depth of their squad, which is really important," said Dallaglio. "When we won the 2003 Grand Slam, England used 36 players. This time last year we were down to the bare bones, but we've made huge progress.
"The players that started their careers 12-18 months ago are now 15-20 caps into their international careers, which makes a big difference. But there's still a long way to go - there are positions where we have a healthy competition for places and one or two where we have very little. And to get to the top you need competition all over the park."
Victory over Ireland on Saturday would be some achievement. But while Dallaglio concedes it would a represent a step in the right direction, he rebuffs suggestions it would instantly transform England into anything like a great side.
"You only have to look at the history of the championship to realise how difficult it is to win a Grand Slam," said Dallaglio. "But you also have to realise winning a Grand Slam does not necessarily mean you then go on to be a super team. Look at where France are now [third in the table having lost to Italy last week] having won the Grand Slam last year.
"Yes, it's a great thing to win it, but it's about where you go from there. What you must not do is dwell on it and think 'we've conquered the world'. Let's not delude ourselves, the difference between the Six Nations and the World Cup is New Zealand, Australia and South Africa, and to overcome them on a consistent basis is the long-term target."
The last time England won in Dublin, they put 40 points on the scoreboard. That will not happen again. But even if England lose by a point, as in Cardiff in 1999, the omens will be good. A great team was forged in such battles, and the same could happen again.