Monday 15 July 2019

May Day tolls death knell for French rugby

England 44 France 8

May: First-half hat-trick. Photo: Gareth Fuller/PA Wire
May: First-half hat-trick. Photo: Gareth Fuller/PA Wire

Mick Cleary

The Twickenham crowd celebrated sharp, potent and relentless England, with first-half hat-trick hero Jonny May a star turn, but they should grieve, too, for Les Miserables of France, limp, dishevelled and wretched, a pale imitation of what Les Bleus used to be. Oh, my Blanco and Rives of long ago, where have you gone? It was not so much Le Crunch as La Catastrophe.

The six-try demolition was England's biggest win over France in 108 years, but any home celebrating should also stop for a moment to mourn the death of French rugby.

France's Mathieu Bastareaud in action. Photo: Reuters/Rebecca Naden
France's Mathieu Bastareaud in action. Photo: Reuters/Rebecca Naden

It was May Day all round at Twickenham, the Leicester wing in his pomp, a transformed figure this past 18 months, no longer a wandering soul but a clever, alert and devastatingly efficient player, aware of all possibilities, while France could do nothing but send out distress signals.

There was little joy in witnessing such a demise, only sadness.

May, though, has become quite the item, testimony to his own maturity, but also the evident input that has come his way within the England environment. Speed alone will only take you so far at the highest level.

May has become more measured, more in tune with everything and everyone around him. And he has worked damned hard for his booty. The 28-year-old, who had only four touches in the first half yet scored three tries, is far more on-message than he ever used to be. There is no more dangerous wing in world rugby on current form. England have scored within four minutes in eight of their past 14 Tests, with May responsible for half of those tries.

England's Owen Farrell (left) scores his side's fifth try of the game. Photo: Gareth Fuller/PA Wire
England's Owen Farrell (left) scores his side's fifth try of the game. Photo: Gareth Fuller/PA Wire

May has become the go-to man.

As for England, their sweet chariot is pointed now to Cardiff for a showdown in a fortnight's time against the only other unbeaten team in the championship, although they have a two-point advantage at the top of the table due to their bonus-point bonanza. Wales will be fully aware of what is coming their way and will relish the challenge.

Inflated

Warren Gatland has trumped inflated English hopes before. The way things have shaped up, the title could well be decided at the Principality Stadium on February 23.

Several former French players had warned their compatriots to be on their mettle, for they knew that England would show no mercy. Eddie Jones's team were true to that prognostication, pouncing on every error, tormenting France with their kicking game, twisting and turning them, Owen Farrell delivering yet another masterclass. Jacques Brunel had picked two centres on the wings and a wing at full-back, a recipe for the disaster it turned out to be.

England's Jonny May in action with France's Romain Ntamack. Photo: Reuters/Matthew Childs
England's Jonny May in action with France's Romain Ntamack. Photo: Reuters/Matthew Childs

May was a one-man nemesis for such flawed thinking. Where once he used to roam and occasionally explode into penetrative action, now he plays with the zeal as well as acumen, sniffing and sensing opportunities. And, boy, has he got the speed to capitalise on any openings, the Bolt of the Midlands.

Rat-a-tat-tat England have made a speciality of the speedy start, as that first quick plunge of the dagger that wounded Ireland so early in the game in Dublin illustrated. May was on the scoresheet even sooner this week, touching down within 65 seconds, courtesy of a pitiful knock-on in midfield by Guilhem Guirado that was exploited to the full, Elliot Daly kicking through and May making the rear French defence look like statues.

England had earmarked France right-wing Damian Penaud as a weak link, kicking on the converted centre at every opportunity. May was on full alert. It was a fruitful watch. Two tries in five minutes midway through the first half confirmed May's growing reputation as one of the game's ace marksmen, moving him up the all-time England lists, level in seventh place with Josh Lewsey, with his 22nd in 42 Tests.

Red-hot

May is in red-hot form, with 12 tries in his past 12 Tests. That is productivity for you. The second try came from a lovely, floated pass by Owen Farrell on a cut-back run, the third followed another French knock-on blooper, this time from scrum-half Morgan Parra, Chris Ashton nudging the ball through for his fellow wing.

France's Antoine Dupont (centre) kicks the ball as England's Joe Launchbury trys to block it. Photo: Gareth Fuller/PA Wire
France's Antoine Dupont (centre) kicks the ball as England's Joe Launchbury trys to block it. Photo: Gareth Fuller/PA Wire

Penaud did get one back for France, but it was scant consolation. England were in their pomp, France on their backsides. "It was very painful," conceded Guirado. It was that.

The second half followed a similar pattern of English ruthlessness and French mishap. Gael Fickou was yellow-carded in the 49th minute for taking out Ashton as he shaped to gather and score after Henry Slade had intercepted up-field, referee Nigel Owens awarding a penalty try. Kyle Sinckler was lucky to concede only a penalty for grabbing the head of flanker Arthur Iturria.

Farrell followed up smartly to get a try around the hour mark. By then, the match was well and truly done, as were France. The usual flurry of replacements served to make the game disjointed. It did not really matter.

It had been yet another impressive display for England - punchy and remorseless. Courtney Lawes smashed Mathieu Bastareaud backwards at one point, a snapshot of the day, England lording it, France reeling on the ropes. Lawes was terrific.

The only self-indulgent whisper on the lips of English supporters as they filed out was concern as to whether their team were peaking too soon in a World Cup year. No danger of that with a vigilant Jones in charge, seeking out "complacency in the shadows", as he terms it. Wales, though, will be something else entirely. Mako Vunipola, who limped off with an ankle problem, is their prime injury worry.

France are in England's World Cup pool. Aux Armes, les Citoyens! Only a revolution can save Les Bleus. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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