Sunday 17 December 2017

Something has got to give when big two reach breaking point

There were warning signs in France's display in Dublin that they are not yet ready to storm fortress Twickenham, says Eddie Butler

T he centrepiece of the 2011 Six Nations is obligingly the fixture at its centre, it seems. Sorry to start with the blindingly obvious but it may not turn out to be true. The meeting between the only two unbeaten teams may not be the be-all of the championship and the end-all of others' ambitions.

The title may well go to a team to have lost one game and that leaves Wales and Ireland still in the mix.

Ireland really should have beaten France. Seán Cronin, generally adhesive of hand and unafraid of open spaces, dropped the pass that mattered and we will never know if he would have made it to the line without the assistance of the queue of unguarded backs beyond him.

Wales may be in a strange place, not the chamber of horrors that goes with defeat by England but still a fog of confusion. To beat Scotland with 15 minutes of efficiency on the ball and 65 without it did not tell them much about themselves except that they may actually have played better against England.

Here we should mention Scotland if only because they are next up for Ireland. How you can go from fearless to toothless in a week must be etching furrows deep into brows from the Borders up. The battle for the ball is still sacredly preserved in rugby because without it how else do you score? Scotland in possession have somehow managed to make themselves a scoring opportunity for their opponents. Why should anyone worry about the primary scrap when there may well be secondary gifts gratis?

Scotland will be honour-bound to generate more bite against Ireland and they showed in the autumn that they respond quickly, going from defeat by New Zealand to victory over South Africa in a week. But Ireland will not be caught off-guard like the Springboks.

Scotland and Italy have to keep reaching for a broader set of options. Rugby has somehow managed to satisfy its desire to reward positive intent. No longer does the tackler initially control the breakdown. No country should be better suited to this shifting of the balance of advantage than France, instinctively drawn to demonstrations of skill. No country has responded more quickly to the opportunities of the new game than the former slaves to honest toil, England. Now they meet, unbeaten; something must give.

Toby Flood is the revelation of the year, his speed of reaction and precision of pass pulling England willingly forward. Chris Ashton is the most obvious example of England's response to the prompting from 10. Once upon a time David Duckham, a genuine genius, stood on the wing at Twickenham and could count chilblains in bigger numbers than passes. Now there is only a danger of overloading Ashton, of setting him up for a gang-tackle that speaks of opponents well briefed in his runs and irked by his gestures.

But even here, at strategic level, England may yet be a step ahead. They have already found a way to bypass their slightly inelegant, tank-stopping midfield of Mike Tindall and Shontayne Hape. Why try to make them into ballerinas when Flood and Mark Cueto, coming off his wing, can sweep the ball from one touchline to the other in two passes?

There is nothing any opponent can do about the power of the England pack. Dan Cole and Tom Palmer have clearly accepted the invitation -- the demand -- to make an impact, Dylan Hartley to prove a provoker wrong. There may be the odd quibble about the balance of the back row in a game of duress but the return of Lewis Moody could solve that, a scavenging seven, allowing James Haskell to launch himself off the bench as a runner in the final quarter.

And to supplement the eternal truth of forward power, there is the threat of the coiled spring. Ben Youngs so far has been dutifully serving Flood, accurately and speedily, but otherwise the scrumhalf has been conspicuous only for a couple of uncharacteristic knocks-on. Little has been seen of his running.

How gratifying that must be for England, to know that the moment defences begin to close around threats visible to any analyst, Youngs is poised to strike. He is on a leash at the moment but must sense a hand reaching for the release catch.

France may say that they worry about no single opponent, no collection of forwards, no wingers in particular. They have individuals of their own, such as Maxime Medard, a pack that will be looking to put England to the test at the scrummage if nowhere else. And in Aurelien Rougerie, Damien Traille and Yannick Jauzion, they have a trio, all blessed with the combination of size and subtlety that eludes England, from which to perm a centre duo. And either Morgan Parra or Dimitri Yachvili at scrumhalf, in association with the brilliant Thierry Dusautoir at six, are feisty enough to take care of Youngs. France are unbeaten on the field and settled in selection. They smile at their own erratic form sometimes, but, if they cannot make an effort to turn up at Twickenham in a World Cup year, they may as well give up.

Which, of course, is what they did against Australia in the autumn. And there was something about their reaction in Dublin that suggested a little too much relief and not enough displeasure at themselves. France on a roll would have scowled at Ireland coming so close.

France, in short, may not yet be ready in their heads for a trip to Twickenham. The centrepiece of the Six Nations may be a tipping point, with England marching resolutely forward. It does not mean the Six Nations is diminished, just that the climax moves to its rightful place further down the calendar.


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