Lancaster leads England renaissance
England forwards coach Graham Rowntree is not normally an emotional man, nor one given to effusive praise.
So his comments about the team and its interim coach Stuart Lancaster after the 30-9 demolition of Ireland at Twickenham on Saturday were as telling as they were unusual.
"We've been born again as a new team under Stuart," he said. "We've come such a long way. We've made everyone proud of us again, and there's still loads more to come."
If that sounds a little giddy for a side finishing a place lower than a year ago, it is worth reminding oneself of the unholy mess that England were in only two months ago - unsuccessful on the pitch, divided off it, unloved by supporters disenchanted with both perceived attitudes and stone-cold results.
Even die-hards had written this Six Nations off as a time to experiment and rebuild for another distant day.
Lancaster has revitalised England's squad since taking charge. Photo - Getty
Four wins from five later, with three games won away from home for the first time in history, young players not just blooded but flourishing. With rousing victories taken against all recent odds in Paris and over Ireland, the jilted are starting to swoon once again. It is quite some renaissance.
Saturday's thumping was so emphatic by the end that it was easy to lose sight of the context. The men in green had won seven of their last eight meetings with England in this oldest of competitions, including three of the last four at Twickenham.
Even with storied stalwarts Paul O'Connell and Brian O'Driscoll missing they featured 616 caps in their starting XV, almost three times as many as England.
In a scrappy first half they had trailed by only three points yet had a superior kicking game and seemed to be playing the slippery, gloomy conditions rather more effectively.
All that changed in the last 40 minutes as the home pack dismantled the visitors' scrum in a way that hasn't happened since Andrew Sheridan smashed Australia to small green and gold pieces in the autumn of 2005.
Mike Ross, suffering from what coach Declan Kidney referred to, with kind understatement, as a "crick in the neck" was already struggling, but the hammering absorbed by his replacement Tom Court bordered on humiliation.
Court began his sporting career as a shot putter. He ended this game shot to pieces.
England won 11 scrums to Ireland's three, sticking on 21 second-half points as Ireland conceded 12 penalties - almost all of them from a set-piece going backwards and upwards and sidewards, anywhere but forward - one penalty try, and another seven points to a quick tap from another inevitable scrum capitulation.
Kidney's men had actually impressed at the breakdown, as we have come to expect. But elsewhere the wheels were coming off: 11 tackles missed, a debilitating 17 errors shipped as experienced and talented hands developed the grip of shovels shifting waste.
We should hope St Patrick was looking elsewhere on his big day.
England, too keen to run from too deep in the first half, took a rollicking from Rowntree at the interval and came out with a game-plan that made sense. Kick for territory, play for the set-piece, snatch at every inch of impetus and turn it into something better.
If Lee Dickson had a chastening afternoon behind the scrum, the man outside him, Owen Farrell, was near faultless, eight men in front of him outstanding.
Ben Morgan, in only his third international start, was a worthy man of the match. Tom Croft continued where he had left off at the Stade de France. The front row of Dan Cole, Dylan Hartley and Alex Corbisiero - average age: 24 - mangled their opposite numbers and celebrated with a grizzled bear-hug when the penalty try became their reward.
It was no sort of way for Ireland's skipper, the valiant Rory Best, to celebrate passing Keith Wood as his country's most capped hooker, and no sort of ending to a season that saw his side score more tries than in their Grand Slam year of 2009 but finish awash in what ifs and so nearlys rather than championship medals.
The last-gasp loss to Wales had been cruel, the draw in Paris, having held a double-digit lead at half-time, painful. But this was as chastening a display as Kidney's regime has witnessed.
England's forward momentum comes with no guarantees. With three summer Tests in South Africa and games against the All Blacks and Wallabies to follow in autumn, sterner tests and possibly tougher times may follow.
Whatever transpires, Lancaster should be at the helm to confront it.
Rumours late on Saturday from South Africa had Nick Mallett, the other man in the frame for the permanent England job, apparently all but conceding his candidacy.
But it is not just Lancaster's immediate future the RFU must decide. His assistant Andy Farrell is due to return to Saracens on Monday morning, his courtesy loan period over.
There have been suggestions that the RFU, even if they take Mallett at his supposed word, might seek to bring in some more international experience to the staff in the shape of former New Zealand assistant coach (and an avowed second in command) Wayne Smith. The caretaker, if given the job, would dearly love to keep the current triumvirate together.
"I just want to express my pride in the performance," said a smiling, almost dazed, Lancaster afterwards.
"We talked a lot about believing in in each other and self-belief, but when you think that this squad first came together eight weeks ago, at a League Two club in Leeds...
"I'm just delighted for the players, for the management and for the supporters. It was a great way to finish. It's probably exceeded most people's expectations but we've always believed in this group of players."
Does he feel he's done enough to secure the promotion full-time?
"I've known all along the timelines and the process. I understand what people need to do. I'll just enjoy the moment.
"Any team has to win in difficult conditions but also learn and improve. The most pleasing thing for us as a coaching team is that we can see that happening and see what we have worked on in training coming through in matches. It's been a great journey."