England legend Rory Underwood says the team could defy the doubters by making this year's World Cup semi-finals.
Underwood scored 49 tries in 85 Tests for England
England were hammered 43-13 by Ireland on Saturday, but Underwood told BBC Sport: "Even though they were beaten by a much better side, they are improving.
"I've definitely seen indications this year that they are at least trying to play in the right way as a team.
"And because of their draw, reaching the final four in the World Cup isn't beyond the bounds of possibility."
However, Underwood, England's record try-scorer and second-most capped player, said head coach Brian Ashton still has his work cut out.
606 DEBATE: How can England improve?
The former winger said: "Against Italy at Twickenham, England played the same way for 80 minutes even though it was obviously not working.
"If I'd been playing I would've been pretty hacked off because the wingers didn't get the ball.
"England were playing to Italy's strengths, they weren't putting the ball into space, and surely Brian could have got a message to the team that things needed shaking up."
If Brian Ashton goes for Mike Catt at centre now, he's got to stick with him for the World Cup
Underwood, 42, who now runs a company advising businesses on leadership and team work, added England's players need to think more for themselves.
"I don't think they have enough of a sense of being in control out there," claimed the former RAF pilot.
"When things aren't going well, there's too much looking to the sidelines for direction. England need more people to show leadership.
"If Phil Vickery wasn't captain, who would be? You could argue the case for Jonny Wilkinson, but who are the other prime candidates?
"Martin Johnson was a great England skipper partly because he had great lieutenants such as Lawrence Dallaglio, Neil Back, Matt Dawson and Jonny around him."
One such leader is the experienced Mike Catt, who many commentators feel should replace rugby league convert Andy Farrell at centre for England's next match against France on 11 March.
Underwood added: "If Brian goes for Catt now, he's got to stick with him for the World Cup.
"But you can't blame Farrell for what happened on Saturday - the Irish had a great game."