Saturday 18 November 2017

Johnson wary of Paris pain

Scotland 15
England 15

Mick Cleary

Paris in the springtime is a prospect that might make lovers swoon with delight and Englishmen collapse with dread. Even Martin Johnson acknowledges that there will be a "different dynamic" to next Saturday's rendezvous at the Stade de France, an appointment laced with anxiety.

France are in pursuit of a Grand Slam while England are scrabbling around for identity, not to mention credibility. If you want a snapshot of where England were with Johnson as player and where they are with Johnson as manager, it was to be found in the final piece of action from a fractured, grim, joyless match.

Seven years ago, England worked the field brilliantly to tee up Jonny Wilkinson for the dropped goal that sent a nation into raptures.

On Saturday, England snatched at a similar opportunity to nick an undeserved win, Toby Flood's rushed dropped goal attempt fended away by a flailing hand.

One situation spoke of composure, deep self-belief and cool heads; the other of fretfulness, disquiet and a lack of ease and game-savvy.

Would Wilkinson have made a difference? The World Cup-winning out-half was lying in a darkened dressing-room at the time, the lights dimmed as he recovered from successive blows to the head. Flood had also missed two long-range penalty pots.

It was the forwards' inability to set up position patiently that scuppered England, not Flood's inaccuracy. Mind you, Wilkinson does have a habit of nailing the big ones.

There was a touch more liveliness about England in the 35 minutes that Flood was on the field, although replacing out-of-sorts full-back Delon Armitage with Ben Foden soon after also brought much-needed zest and devil to England's attack.

England remain a distant prospect for local honours, never mind global acclaim. They are hard on the eye, not to mention the pocket, frustratingly ineffective, a side who bring little spark to the occasion. 'Money well spent' was not a phrase on the lips of many English fans heading through Edinburgh Airport yesterday.

Perhaps a few of those put-upon supporters might even appreciate the British Airways strike action this weekend as it gives them a get-out for Saturday's excursion which is shaping up to be a trip laden with fraught possibilities. Johnson, though, sees nothing amiss in there being trepidation in the air.

Pained

"Saturday evening in Paris can be a very long night if you don't get it right," said the England manager, who wore a pained air afterwards. He knows how it looked: not good.

"It will be a different dynamic and we need to get our heads round that. Maybe it can work for us. They'll be heavy favourites and they've got a lot to lose. We've got to stay with them because they try to blow you off the park in the first 20 minutes. It'll be a step up from here and that will be good for us.

"Everyone goes to Paris with a bit of apprehension. It's a good thing to have because you know that if you don't play, you'll be found out."

There are no more than mere slivers of progress evident in England's make-up. Dan Cole is shaping up as a first-rate tighthead while Foden's belated opportunity offers promise, at least, of better things to come.

Uncapped scrum-half Ben Youngs (20) did well to fill in on the wing after Ugo Monye took a nasty clatter to the head when colliding with Kelly Brown. The brutal game gets ever more brutal. It's a growing concern.

England were bested at the breakdown, scandalously fortunate to escape a yellow card after a final, final, final warning from South African referee Marius Jonker. Hooker Dylan Hartley was lucky, too, with a couple of indiscretions. Scotland's back row is beautifully balanced; England's one-paced.

Joe Worsley did some sterling work in defence and Nick Easter was also effective at restarts. But Scotland won five turnovers, England none. Too much ball was kicked away.

England again missed too many first-up tackles, notably centres Riki Flutey and Mathew Tait. The collective last-line defence, though, held firm.

Scotland had the better clear-cut chances and also hit the post twice with kicks. Small wonder that Andy Robinson looked miffed as to what might have been. The former England head coach had set up his side well, notably at the line-out which was outstanding. After three championship losses, a draw was suitably acclaimed as manna. Scotland are a better side than their results indicate.

What now for England? They must be growing weary themselves of reciting the parrot-like mantra that good things are within their grasp. The names of centres Shontayne Hape and Mike Tindall ought now to feature in the selectors' thoughts.

For the third trip in succession to Murrayfield, England failed to score a try, Wilkinson and Flood accounting for the points, Dan Parks likewise for Scotland. The backdrop was suitably edgy and hostile, the outcome a let-down. Endlessly reset scrums makes for grim viewing: 'The Scream' comes to Murrayfield. In his blackout surroundings, perhaps Wilkinson was the lucky one. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent

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