It is possible, as Australia proved on Saturday, to rise from the ashes of grim sporting failure within a week. The bad news for England is that the gruesome twosome of South Africa and New Zealand are now bearing down, studs glinting and nostrils flared in anticipation. Unless Stuart Lancaster's side can make rapid improvements the latest in a familiar sequence of cruel, grey, English autumns is looming.
Make no mistake, this was a sobering, sombre result on several levels. Even if we ignore the dark implications for England's 2015 Rugby World Cup pool draw — at this rate they could find themselves sharing the same one as the All Blacks and Wales — a gallant Wallabies side exposed all the same fault lines Lancaster inherited. Poor decisions, insufficient composure, mediocre passing skills, problems at the breakdown… tick, tick, tick and tick.
"You can talk about positives but you have to be honest in rugby and the truth is this is a big blow," said the fly-half Toby Flood, rightly choosing not to gloss over the blatantly obvious.
This performance also shone harsh torchlights on certain individuals. Chris Robshaw is a popular captain and an outstanding club competitor but he was left coughing and spluttering in the vapour trails of Michael Hooper on Australia's flank.
The best teams in the world have a complementary blend of power, pace and agility across their back rows, and at least one gain-line thunderer in the second row. England, however, do not possess balance in either area and, as a result, struggled to wear down opponents who showed far more resilience than they had done in Paris the previous week, when they lost 33–6.
There was a visible difference when Joe Launchbury, Tom Wood and Mako Vunipola came on and at least two of that trio should start against the Springboks. If Alex Corbisiero is match fit there will be a huge temptation to restore him at loosehead, while changes in the backs also now appear unavoidable.
Manu Tuilagi still looks at this level like a wing playing in the centre and Jonathan Joseph should wear 13. Inside him there is a case for Lancaster going for broke with Freddie Burns at 10 and perhaps even considering his Gloucester team-mate, Billy Twelvetrees, at 12, on the grounds that the home team need to run straighter, ask more questions and make the Springboks defence think more than Australia's had to.
Shifting the midfield deckchairs, though, will be immaterial if quick ball remains elusive. Both Danny Care and Ben Youngs at scrum-half are desperate to play with tempo but neither displayed the accuracy or judgment of Nick Phipps and never put a calming foot on the ball in the way, say, Will Genia can do.
The tap-and-go decisions in front of the posts which cost England a crucial six points are symptomatic of a more widespread condition; England are trying to play a brand of rugby that not all of their players have the necessary tools to implement.
Nor does it help when England play like duffers while wearing unfamiliar plum. It continues to be an affront to the senses when commercial greed forces the national side to perform fashion cartwheels at the expense of tradition, taste and common sense.
Initially it felt like watching a wobbling pile of rhubarb and custard. Once it became obvious Australia were by far the smarter operators, it resembled 15 shrewd Colonel Mustards outwitting 15 frenetic Professor Plums.
The contrast was at its most striking whenever Berrick Barnes or Kurtley Beale had the ball; the numbers on their back mattered far less than the deftness of touch and accuracy which this pair consistently displayed
Out on the right wing, the shaggy-haired Nick Cummins was enthusiasm personified, and while Phipps's 35th-minute scoring pass looked distinctly forward, the wing fully deserved his "first piece of Test meat", as he charmingly called it.
Despite everything, though, England still led 14-11 at half-time. If nothing else, Tuilagi owes the Twickenham groundsman, Keith Kent, a drink, because it was only by a millimetre of whitewash that he was awarded the try that should have paved the way to a reassuring home win.
After that, there was frustratingly little. England did not score a second-half point and Flood, once again, summed it up neatly: "We are still making far too many mistakes under pressure and being caught out by sides who are taking their chances much better than us."
The same issue tended to surface under Martin Johnson and Andy Robinson but this was unquestionably the most disappointing result of Lancaster's era. Like everyone else he knows Australia deserved their victory and that life is not about to get any easier. "There's a big challenge coming around the corner," he said, insisting there was little point recalling any France-based players because they would not be available for the All Blacks game which falls outside the autumn Test window.
To compound the sense of home regret, the occasion was also undermined by the worst butchering of the pre-match anthems I have heard in almost 40 years of attending Twickenham internationals. Advance Australia Fair descended into failed X-Factor audition territory, while God Save the Queen strayed towards the realms of doo-wop.
When you find yourself wondering if Peter Andre would have been a wiser booking, things really can only get better.
England: Goode (Saracens); Ashton (Saracens), Tuilagi (Leicester), Barritt (Saracens; Farrell, Saracens, 74), Sharples (Gloucester; Brown, Harlequins, 61); Flood (Leicester), Care (Harlequins; B Youngs, Leicester, 61); Marler (Harlequins; M Vunipola, Saracens, 50), T Youngs (Leicester; Paice, London Irish, 74), Cole (Leicester), Palmer (London Wasps; Launchbury, London Wasps, 54), Parling (Leicester), Johnson (Exeter Chiefs; Wood, Northampton, 50), Robshaw (Harlequins, capt), Waldrom (Leicester).
Try Tuilagi. Pens Flood 3.
Australia: Barnes (NSW Waratahs); Cummins (Western Force), Ashley-Cooper (Waratahs), Tapuai (Queensland Reds), Ioane (Reds, Mitchell, Waratahs, 70); Beale (Melbourne Rebels), Phipps (Melbourne Rebels); Robinson (Waratahs; Slipper, Reds, 61), Polota-Nau (Waratahs; Moore, Brumbies, h-t), Alexander (ACT Brumbies; Kepu (Waratahs, 71), Timani (Waratahs), Sharpe (Western Force, capt), Dennis (Waratahs; Gill, Reds, 77), Hooper (Waratahs), Paul (Waratahs).
Try Cummins: Pens Barnes 4. Drop-goal Barnes.
Referee: R Poite (Fr). Attendance: 81,361.
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