Their 19-12 defeat by Wales ended their unbeaten start to the Six Nations – with just millimetres separating potential glory and defeat.
A conversion was still needed had David Strettle’s last-gasp dive into the corner been deemed a try – and perhaps Wales were deserving of their win having recovered from an almighty battering to pinch a victory.
Leigh Halfpenny’s boot had kept Warren Gatland’s side in contention before Scott Williams’ opportunist try handed them victory.
Wales bathed in the hysteria of a Triple Crown success as England were left to reflect on their own performance, but Lancaster’s young charges were worthy adversaries in a match many thought beyond their capabilities.
This defeat marked another stage in the progression of an inexperienced side looking to rebuild.
It is somewhat perverse that cause for optimism should be taken from a defeat, especially when so little was taken from the two previous victories over Scotland and Italy.
But it was the way in which many of England’s young hopefuls performed that means Lancaster should not be too disheartened. Indeed for large parts of the game this was England’s match to win.
Whether Lancaster should be appointed permanent coach has been a matter of incessant debate, but rather than damage his claims for the job, this impressive performance against Warren Gatland’s side will only enhance them.
The way the Cumbrian has brought together this inexperienced group is admirable, with many of the Six Nations debutants proving to be England’s most impressive on the field.
Owen Farrell looked every inch a future star on his very first appearance for England at Twickenham.
Moved across to the number 10 shirt in Charlie Hodgson’s absence, the youngster was at once assured and adventurous throughout. Though few actually doubted his temperament, his invention and enterprise at fly half will have surprised many onlookers.
Playing outside Farrell was another 20-year-old, the imperious battering ram that is Manu Tuilagi.
With each rampage the Leicester centre seemed to build in power and stature and by half-time Jamie Roberts, the 17-stone Welsh Lions centre, appeared a callow youth out of his depth on the international stage.
Farrell and Tuilagi were born a matter of months apart, and right now it is clear both have long futures at this level.
Ben Morgan and Lee Dickson both looked comfortable on their first starts for England, while Geoff Parling – another one to be making his first start – dominated the line-out like an international veteran.
Captain Chris Robshaw led his troops manfully and Mauritz Botha and Brad Barritt thrived in the physical environment.
Still concerns elsewhere linger. Ben Youngs, an obvious Lion-in-waiting just one year ago, has looked bereft of both confidence and ideas.
The manner in which the Leicester scrum half has so quickly fallen out of form is startling, and perhaps he needs a period of injury-free rugby at his club before returning to the international fold.
Chris Ashton and, to a lesser extent, Ben Foden have been surprisingly blunt in attack, while Dylan Hartley has also failed to shine.
Toby Flood’s return to international rugby was forced and felt premature and Tom Palmer’s sudden dropping was perhaps deserved.
Those who were previously England’s exciting new youngsters must now come to the fore and embrace their status as their side’s elder statesmen.
Fresh battles await England, and with matches against France and then Ireland it will not get any easier. But if they play with the same endeavour that they showed on the Twickenham pitch on Saturday they will have reasons to hold their heads high.
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