Steve Thompson is convinced England are heading on the right track towards next year’s World Cup defence – despite their patchy form since conquering planet rugby in 2003.
England have lost 10 out of 19 Tests during a disappointing reign as world champions, and their RBS 6 Nations success-rate stands at just 50% over the past two seasons, finishing outside the tournament’s top two on each occasion.
Given that Thompson has started every one of England’s Six Nations games after making his debut against Scotland in 2002, he is better placed than most to offer a realistic assessment heading into this year’s campaign, which starts on Saturday when Wales arrive at Twickenham.
"We know we are going in the right direction, we know the experience in the squad is coming now and everyone is playing for their place in the team," said the 42 times-capped England hooker.
"Perhaps before, when we lost quite a few players after the World Cup, there wasn’t that strength in depth.
"But in every position now there is someone putting their hand up and saying they want to be in the team, and that’s the way it has got to be.
"We have a lot of players who have been gaining experience over the past couple of years, and now I think it is time we’ve got to actually stand up, put some performances in and really meet the Six Nations challenge.
"I was a player in the team who didn’t have to do anything really – it was there on a plate for me – but all of a sudden, I was one of the senior guys.
"It was a bit different, but now, I think we are going forward and working towards where we want to be, which is something I think we showed during the autumn internationals."
England’s autumn form guide reveals emphatic victories over Australia and Samoa, but the major talking point proved their failure to beat world leaders New Zealand after dominating possession and territory.
And it is why some believe England could prove vulnerable during this season’s RBS 6 Nations as they to re-establish themselves in European rugby’s blue riband event.
"We were devastated we lost that match," added Thompson, recalling the 23-19 All Blacks defeat.
"We should have won that really – it was a game we should have closed out – and we know we have got to step up another couple of notches going into this game on Saturday.
"A lot of people talk about our backs, but to be honest, it’s down to the forwards to give them the space to allow them to play, and there were times when we didn’t do that. It is all about getting the balance right."