Tuesday 20 March 2018

England dazed and confused

Peter Bills

You may fool all of the people some of the time, but you can't fool all of the people all of the time.

The old saying is one that England might do well to remember as they prepare to stick their heads into the jaw of a strutting, arrogant French cockerel in the final match of this season's Six Nations. As France bid for their first Grand Slam since 2004, England have only pride to play for at the Stade de France today. And the way England have played this winter, there can't be too much of that in their camp.

Strange then, perhaps, to seek the inside track on England from an Australian. But few men in world rugby understand both English rugby and forward play as well as Michael Foley, ex-Wallaby hooker and former coach of Guinness Premiership club Bath.

Foley offered the kind of deep-seated analysis that England's coaches would probably prefer remained secret.

"The most important thing for the players in the team is to understand the strategic approach," said Foley. "As long as that is clear, you can almost look at a map of the field and say, 'let's forget the opposition for a second'. Ideally, how do we see the game being played in the different areas of the field? So, this is our game, what we think, but how much would we need to adapt to a particular opposition?

"The trouble is, when you watch England play, it looks like a team that is strategically confused; like, should we actually be in this area, keeping the ball in hand or putting the ball behind the opposition and contesting, or should we actually be putting it out and having a set piece down that part of the field?

"I may be completely wrong but that's what it looks like to me. Strategically, England are a bit at the crossroads. They need to make a decision on where they are going to go with their strategy."

Foley is completely right. England arrive at this final match of their eight-Test winter programme still unsure what their overall strategy is. Defeat in Paris will compound that fog of uncertainty at the heart of England.

If so many questions remain over the actual personnel in this England side, then they hover too over the coaching personnel. Should France catch fire tonight and achieve their Grand Slam in some style, then the future of England's back-up coaches, the likes of John Wells, Graham Rowntree and Brian Smith, will be raised.

Martin Johnson is probably bomb-proof until the World Cup next year -- the RFU are paying him so much they wouldn't want to sack him, too, 18 months before a World Cup.

England have played as though in a strait jacket. Unless they can break out from this confused strategy based primarily on caution and defence, they have no chance of clambering back towards the upper echelons of world rugby.

But the French are a different matter. If, as expected, they complete a Grand Slam -- adding to victories over South Africa in November and the All Blacks, in New Zealand, last June -- then that's a pretty decent return and signals their steady improvement ahead of the World Cup next year.

In direct contrast to England, coach Marc Lievremont has liberated his team and offered them some freedom in strategy and individual decision making. They will seek to complete the job in typical French style tonight and the likelihood is, they will do so handsomely.

France -- C Poitrenaud; M Andreu, M Bastareaud, Y Jauzion, A Palisson; F Trinh-Duc, M Parra; T Domingo, W Servat, N Mas; L Nallet, J Pierre; T Dusautoir, J Bonnaire, I Harinordoquy. Reps: D Szarzewski, JB Poux, S Chabal, A Lapandry, D Yachvili, D Marty, J Malzieu.

England -- B Foden; M Cueto, M Tindall, R Flutey, C Ashton; T Flood, D Care; T Payne, D Hartley, D Cole; S Shaw , L Deacon; J Worsley, L Moody, N Easter. Reps: S Thompson, D Wilson, T Palmer, J Haskell, B Youngs, J Wilkinson, M Tait.

France v England,

Live, RTE2, BBC1, 7.45

Irish Independent

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport