TWICKENHAM, London -- England's win over Italy served as the perfect example of the battle rugby is facing. Establishing a level playing field for years hence, and where there are more than a handful of contenders to win the sport's top prize, is a dream that cannot be fast-tracked.
For all Italy's endeavour, attacking ambition and spirit, they were always going to lose this match. It was as close as you can get to an uncertain certainty. But while folk are arguing over the long-term future of the sport and will end up hitting brick wall after brick wall, that Italy came to Twickenham and tried to attack -- rather than refusing to ruck -- shows the wonderful ambition in the underdogs, despite the odds being stacked against them.
The head start the big dogs of rugby got at the advent of professionalism means those dining at the top table are so well-established that the chasm between the haves and have-nots is growing, rather than closing. And even the literal terms of Tier One and Tier Two don't cover the scale of the problem -- after all, Italy are deemed Tier One.
Do not, for one minute, blame Italy for this scenario. Okay, they were dismal in defence against England on Saturday, but they also ended up with their three centres injured and a prop in the back-row.
England played well, brought a ruthlessness and a power game and did what was expected in a little-to-win scenario. But though Italy will be criticised for this hammering, as the corridors of power attempt to find an acceptable scenario for the sport in the new global calendar, this shows the uphill mission facing rugby. You cannot microwave this sport, there are no short-cuts and the sport is still -- for all the added investment and individual endeavour -- playing catch up after the original carve up at the turn of professionalism.
Eddie Jones was asked post-match for his thoughts around Italy, who have suffered 21 defeats in a row and will now finish at the foot of the championship for the 14th time in 20 attempts. Jones replied that his thoughts were solely on England, that's the team he cares about. Again, this isn't to his fault. Instead it shows the self-protectionist nature of pressure in sport. Jones knows that had England lost against Italy, he would not be praised for playing his part in the levelling of playing fields but would instead be hauled over the coals by his bosses and England supporters. His priority is England and fair enough; his battle is not around the long-term future of the game he loves, his is an annual focus on winning the championship and ensuring England are in the best place possible to win a World Cup. That's why he would have been so pleased at the performance of Manu Tuilagi and the emergence of Joe Cokanasiga, who played brilliantly and was named man of the match but is perhaps as low as fifth-choice winger for England.
The difference between the two benches shows the gulf in class and talent. It's not insurmountable, but it won't close in an instant. O'Shea frequently references how there isn't a magic wand at his disposal to bridge the gap and his hand wasn't helped by their bad luck with injuries and errors. Indeed, being charged down twice for tries in the closing stages demonstrates the margins at play for Italy; once is unfortunate, twice is the kind of carelessness that can only be eradicated through exposure to those decision-making moments at the highest possible level and against players brilliantly placed to punish your weaknesses.
During the week, O'Shea was asked about the Nations Championship. He responded by praising the ambition to offer opportunity to emerging nations. Equally, his bullishness is a sign of the progress Italy are making behind the scenes with meagre resources. O'Shea would have taken heart from how Ajax defeated Real Madrid in the Champions League during the week -- proof a well-oiled, long-term, sustainable system can challenge unlimited riches.
But on this brisk afternoon, Italy could not match England's power game -- they simply don't have those types of players in their arsenal. In fairness, few do: England had three backs in Ben Te'o, Tuilagi and Cokanasiga who collectively weigh more than boxing heavyweights Anthony Joshua, Tyson Fury and Deontay Wilder.
These victories where smaller nations topple the favourites seem to be more by chance than design. When asked post-match what it's going to take for Italy to travel to places like Twickenham on a more level playing field, O'Shea said: "That's a really difficult question to answer. The question I'd ask back, is around the level of workrate and pride they [Italy] put in. It would've been easy for them to raise a white flag and go, 'listen there are too many curveballs coming at us, we've lost our backline, our back-row,' but you didn't see that, you saw them flying into things.
"This a tough place to come, but I saw a team that went out there with the ambition to play, backed itself, tried to the very end. They [England] were better -- sometimes you over-analyse, but they were just better."
Next week, O'Shea's Italy host France. The last time they were given a 50-point beating by England, they bounced back with a win over Les Bleus the following week. A similar result would reward Italy's ambition and the work going on behind the scenes to change their player pathways and build sustainable, long-term success. And that progress likely would not be happening without them having a seat at the Six Nations table and all the comparative riches it brings.
But money alone isn't the answer. It takes time. Throwing the kitchen sink at them for losing at Twickenham is not the answer, either. Instead, think of this in the bigger picture. And hope for long-term change rather than short-termism when World Rugby meets in Dublin next week to continue thrashing out exactly what the global game looks like in the future.