Monday 11 December 2017

Belief growing for England

England 23 France 13

England’s inspirational captain Chris Robshaw
England’s inspirational captain Chris Robshaw

Chris Hewett

There are people out there who remember a time when England could confidently expect to win a major Test without a stable scrum or a fully functioning line-out, but as they can also tell us what it was like to live through the Great Depression, we can safely say it is not the modern way.

By beating France without a set-piece game worthy of the name, Stuart Lancaster's side showed us something new – something that suggested, more strongly than at any point in the last year, that they may be a champion team in the making.

You could see it in Lancaster's expression an hour or so after the final whistle as the significance of the victory dawned on him. The head coach was not exactly whooping it up – he was a picture of relief and satisfaction. Correctly, he had identified these opponents, hell-bent on avenging the indignities of recent weeks, as supremely threatening. To have beaten them with an off-colour display was quite something.

"Yes, I did regard this as a really dangerous game," the coach said. "What you saw out there was a French team of high quality, highly motivated. When you put that cocktail of ingredients together, the danger is obvious.

"Problem-solving is a big thing in rugby because the things you bank on don't always go your way, so it's good for the players to go through an experience like this one. You can't replicate it on the training field. There were aspects of the game that didn't go well for us, but I told the players it was a bloody good win and they should enjoy the moment."

Many, perhaps most, of the eye-catching acts were clad in blue: behind the scrum the Tricolores possessed the hard-running full-back Yoann Huget, the high-calibre centre Wesley Fofana and the master manipulator Morgan Parra; up front, they were armed with Thomas Domingo, that squat little bundle of pain and torment, and Louis Picamoles, one of the more punishing ball-carriers in the sport.

And then there was flanker and captain, Thierry Dusautoir, whose command performances tend to be off the scale. Philippe Saint-André, who has not always seen eye-to-eye with the Toulouse forward during his time as head coach, had no doubts as to the quality of his contribution here. "That was his best game since the World Cup final and also reminiscent of it," he said.

It is also worth mentioning that England had a valuable ally, if an unwitting one, in referee Craig Joubert. Some of his early decisions against the French were peculiar to the point of unfathomability, and his failure to spot the glaring illegality in the build-up to England's freakishly fortunate game-turning try – when Tom Wood fly-hacked the ball at a ruck, it reached Manu Tuilagi in great rolling acres of open space via the shin of Mako Vunipola, who was patently in an offside position – did not amuse Saint-André one little bit.

"Straight off the training field," said Wood afterwards. "I've been practising that for 15 years." The No 8 could be forgiven the joke: along with Chris Robshaw, his back-row partner, he had been far and away England's most effective player – not just in the destructive areas of the contest, where he never fails to impress, but in possession too.

"Actually," he continued, "you make your own luck in this game with your commitment and your attitude. They picked a big, strong pack and came here to bully us, but we didn't allow ourselves to become flustered."

And that was the key point. All sorts of things went awry for England: the dry statistics tell us that the scrum struggled – a 71pc delivery rate is not the stuff of iron-clad solidity – and while the French managed only two line-out steals according to the official figures, the story told by the naked eye was of endless Red Rose trials and tribulations in this most important of disciplines. They also conceded a super-soft try to Fofana, tacklers bouncing off him like flies off a windshield. Yet there was not even a hint of panic.

Increasingly, it is evident that England are ahead of the game on the conditioning front and are better than any other side in Europe when it comes to influencing games from the bench.

Saint-André, uncomfortably aware that his selection policy at the start of the Six Nations had precious few supporters, picked the right people in the right places for this one, but the moment he started tinkering – the half-backs, Parra and François Trinh-Duc, were substituted at the wrong moments – his team began to slip away.

Lancaster, on the other hand, enjoyed a handsome return from Vunipola, Tom Youngs and James Haskell.

If the coach left Twickenham with a couple of concerns, they were far from insignificant. Owen Farrell failed to reach close of play after pulling up with a fast-deteriorating thigh injury, and in the event, Lancaster was grateful for Toby Flood's nervelessness in shutting down the game with two well-struck penalties at the back end of the contest.

Chris Ashton, on the other hand, stayed on the field far too long. The harder he tries – and he tried ridiculously hard here – the worse he plays.

"Chris knows there are areas of his game he needs to work on," the coach conceded. "We've spoken about it. There are options there: we could run Manu on the wing and play Billy Twelvetrees in midfield." Or he could recall David Strettle to face Italy, or bring Charlie Sharples back into the fold.

That, though, is a decision for tomorrow, or the day after. For now, Lancaster can relax. The next game is almost a fortnight distant, against the weakest side in the tournament. Life could hardly be better – not that the coach would dream of admitting it in public. (© Independent News Service)

England – A Goode; C Ashton, M Tuilagi, B Barritt, M Brown; O Farrell (T Flood 61), B Youngs (D Care 58); J Marler (M Vunipola 51), D Hartley (T Youngs 51), D Cole; J Launchbury, G Parling; C Lawes (J Haskell 51), C Robshaw, T Wood.

France – Y Huget; V Clerc, M Bastareaud (F Fritz 73), W Fofana, B Fall; F Trinh-Duc (F Michalak 52), M Parra (M Machenaud 66); T Domingo (V Debaty 55), B Kayser (D Szarzewski 55), N Mas (J Suta 64); C Samson (L Ducalcon 64), Y Maestri; Y Nyanga Kabasele (A Claassen 68), T Dusautoir, L Picamoles.

Ref – C Joubert (RSA)

Irish Independent

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