Sunday 25 June 2017

England's enemies gathering in shadows after unconvincing victory

Eddie Jones’s unblemished record remains intact. Photo: Henry Browne/Action Images via Reuters
Eddie Jones’s unblemished record remains intact. Photo: Henry Browne/Action Images via Reuters

Paul Hayward

Eddie Jones framed it as the 21st war between the English and the French, and it was certainly like going back in time, to an age when France ran at teams rather than try to smash them into the mud, as they have throughout their wilderness years.

England are in a new phase now; the one where opponents try to work out what they like least - and give it to them, right between the eyes. Jones's unblemished record as England coach remains intact, courtesy of a 19-16 victory shaped by a second-half surge and the familiar red rose resilience.

France are evolving anyway, or at least returning to some of their best traditions. But the gallop they struck up in the first 40 minutes was also intended to knock the Six Nations favourites and Grand Slam holders out of their favoured rhythms. After 15 consecutive wins, England can no longer expect teams to come here and give them what they want: 15 punchbags on which to beat out Jones's favourite message about becoming World No 1.

The buried art of adventurous French back play was disinterred minutes after the presumed Grand Slam decider between Ireland and England in Dublin on March 18 went up in smoke with Scotland's victory at Murrayfield. Besides, England have more urgent tasks, starting with a visit to Cardiff on Saturday after this brave but unconvincing win.

The Six Nation thrives on unpredictability - the appearance of parity - even though Scotland and Italy have been out with the washing for as long as anyone can remember. Yet Scotland's thrilling win in Edinburgh sent tremors through England's supporters at Twickenham for 'Le Crunch'. No longer in recovery, post-World Cup, England now have a title to defend, as well as a winning run, and their enemies are gathering in the shadows.

A sequence of sumptuous French attacking just before half-time threatened to send England into the dressing room trailing but Jones's team survived to reach the break level at 9-9. After a poor start, they deserved credit for settling nerves and forcing French errors, which Owen Farrell and Elliot Daly punished with thumping penalty kicks. During that interval, former England hooker Lee Mears told the crowd: "I suspect our game-plan was to run them around and get them tired."

Mears is plainly a glass half-full man, because no England player will have enjoyed the scything breaks of Scott Spedding or Noa Nakaitaci.

As evidence: the upending, leg first, of Gael Fickou by Jonny May, who spent 10 minutes in the sin bin for the crime. A Maro Itoje high-tackle was another distress flare from a side not used to being assailed by the kind of audacious play fetched out of a French museum by their coach Guy Noves.

In 2016, England beat every tier one team except New Zealand. They were deprived of that possibility by not actually playing the All Blacks. Nor will they meet in 2017 - a glaring anomaly. For now, the more local task is to defend that Grand Slam crown in a Six Nations Championship that already looks more volatile than many thought it would be.

'Strength in depth' has become a mantra in these parts, but no side could escape disruption from starting without Chris Robshaw, George Kruis and the Vunipola brothers, Billy and Mako. Itoje's move from lock to blindside flanker was no easy baptism, however gifted he is. The other plank of France's strategy was to stand up to England's forwards, with a pack weighing 934kgs, or an average 18st 10lbs, in old money. At No 8, Louis Picamoles was outstanding on the carry: a vital weapon to go with the brawn.

All of which made for a proper England-France game, with skill and needle, power and pace, and plenty of bold counter-attacking. It also showed England's recent invincibility to be less firmly grounded than 14 consecutive wins (13 under Jones) suggested.

That immutable law of sport (your enemies fight back) has already added spice to this tournament, if only by making France watchable again. A try by Rabah Slimani restored France's lead on the hour and showed Les Bleus to be settling into a multi-faceted approach just as many English observers were expecting them to wilt. The 'strength in depth' claim, though, acquired new substance when Ben Te'o came off the bench to score a try that gave England a narrow lead to protect for the last 10 minutes.

There was much more to this improved French display than a dash down memory lane, to the days of elusive running, but it did the early damage.

It put a doubt in England's minds, gave them a challenge they were uncomfortable with, and left them needing to reassert control in the face of renewed French enterprise. In truth, it will do them good to have faced the kind of mobile opponents they will need to beat to get their hands on World Cup winners' medals in 2019.

Two absorbing opening fixtures augured well for the rest of this championship, in which England will have to fight for every inch and repel new threats. A 15th win and France recognisably France again: two treats in one for the Twickenham audience.

Telegraph

Telegraph.co.uk

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