Saturday 16 December 2017

Lancaster gets his troops to shake off inhibitions

France 22
England 24

Mick Cleary

And now they had better believe in him... Stuart Lancaster for England. As the merry throng of white-shirted fans made their way into a benign Paris evening intent on joyous celebration, there was only one man in their mind for the job of England head coach.

Lancaster's raw, hastily assembled team had done what no England side has ever managed to do, in winning three Six Nations matches away from home in a single championship.

Factor in, too, that the opposition had not been beaten at the Stade de France in this tournament for four years. And England, let's not forget, are still just about in the running to retain their Six Nations title. The win also sees them rise two places to fourth in the world rankings. That doesn't look too bad on anyone's CV. Good timing -- Lancaster's trump card.

The mob will be erecting scaffolding at Twickenham if they deny him now.

Mind you, for England to keep hold of the trophy, they have to see off Ireland by a considerable margin at Twickenham, and France must beat Wales in Cardiff. While the former is a possibility, the prospect of this dreadful France side preventing Warren Gatland's team from claiming a Grand Slam is thinking of the most fanciful order.

Fair play to England. Short of wearing a beret, they couldn't have looked more French for stretches, full of flair and attacking intent. Outscoring the hosts three tries to one in Paris is no mean feat.

England were sharp and potent in the early stages, dithered in allowing France back into the match, and showed nerve and character to close out the deal, a terrific try from Tom Croft in the 71st minute propelling them towards the promised land. Croft had his best game in an England shirt, at long last showing himself to be a true leader.

England even survived a spell with 14 men after Charlie Sharples was harshly sin-binned in the second-half, not conceding a point in his absence.

It would have been a travesty if France had sneaked victory in a frenetic finale, a flaky drop goal-attempt from Francois Trinh-Duc in the last minute falling short. It was a limp effort and summed up France. They looked scared. They were crabby, fitful, fractured and lacking in sparkle, only raising themselves when an unlikely triumph took shape in the closing minutes. Quite how Toulouse coach Guy Noves had the audacity to dub England as "dull and devoid of invention" prior to the match, is a mystery. The half-back changes made by Philippe Saint-Andre were a disaster.

England's sweet chariot, by contrast, was turbo-charged. They were full of running right from the first whistle, not in the least overawed by the occasion. As Lancaster remarked on Friday, experience is one thing, self-belief quite another. England dared, and they got their reward with two tries, from Manu Tuilagi and Ben Foden within the opening 18 minutes. If that was the high-point of England's superiority, they are to be commended for digging deep when it started to go wrong.

Owen Farrell missed a sitter, Chris Ashton caused a penalty to be reversed that was kicked by France, turnovers were ceded and it appeared as if France has scrambled a foothold in the game at half-time when only trailing 14-9 without having contributed much. England had faltered, evidence of a callow side, impatient and lacking the savvy to close the game down when it went wobbly.

But Lancaster's side has got heart. Young they may be, but fickle or frightened, they are not. They weathered the tough times, didn't panic when Sharples was shown the yellow card in the 53rd minute by the pedantic Alain Rolland for a deliberate knock-on.

True, the margins were fine. Phil Dowson, who had come on for Ben Morgan, threw himself at the feet of an advancing France attack to save the line, taking a bang to the head and being forced off. England had to defend a scrum with replacement hooker Rob Webber packing down on the flank.

Not surprisingly, France immediately came down that channel and scored through their most dangerous player, Clermont centre Wesley Fafana. Morgan Parra's conversion from the touchline set England supporters a-tremble.

A wonderful chip-kick break-out from defence initiated by Trinh-Duc and gathered by Aurelien Rougerie threatened to sound the death-knell on tales of England success. But they hung on, Farrell banging the ball into the stands in the last act.


The young fly-half was hit-and-miss but didn't crumble. The set-piece was under the cosh, the scrum giving away penalties, the line-out losing a couple of throws. Again, those failings were not allowed to became deep-rooted faults. They scrapped and battled, Croft rescuing the line-out, the front-row girding loins to see the job through.

England's discipline is becoming something of an issue. Once more they gave away 11 penalties (to four by France), a sign of fretfulness and pressure exerted, but also silliness.

There could be no complaint levelled at England's ability to take chances. A crunching midfield tackle in the 12th minute by Chris Ashton on France hooker Dimitri Szarzewski stemmed a France counter-attack and triggered England's, Lee Dickson's pass feeding Tuilagi who galloped like a good 'un to the line.

Six minutes later, it was a surging return from Morgan that scattered the France defence, his off-load enabling Ben Foden to stretch over.

Croft struck at such a crucial juncture, France having hauled themselves back into contention, two points adrift at 17-15, with penalty goals from Parra and Lionel Beauxis.

It was an unfettered run to glory, enough to send the England masses happy into the night, and enough surely to get their boss the job. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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