This was a fine England performance. The side was well-prepared and inflicted significant psychological and physical blows right from the start of the match. They sent France back, well into their own half, from the kick-off, and then stole the French throw to the first lineout! Two minutes later, from the first scrum, they drove the powerful French pack backwards and referee, George Clancy, rightly awarded England the penalty! Three points to England and a couple of areas of supposed French dominance exposed – all in the space of three minutes. This was some start - and, although the French were eventually able to ‘right the ship’, considerable damage had been done, and England had established a lead of 9 points to 3.
However, it was not all plain sailing for England for the remainder of the first half, and it was a mark of the maturity of this French team, that they were able to right their lineout and stabilise their scrum. Indeed, they did so to such effect that, in the 20th minute, France took the ball against England’s scrum feed with a huge shove. A subsequent penalty bought France level at 9 points all and, despite some excellent attack, with equally excellent defence, this was still the score at the break. One major opportunity for France in this period was diffused by Ben Foden as he gathered the ball on the ground and was strong, and clever, enough to withstand the driving French pressure, until help arrived. This was a near thing and a super effort by Foden.
Such intense, quality matches invariably hinge on a small number of the closest run incidents. England won most of these and this, to me, was a bold statement that they are ‘on their way’. They will be a major threat in New Zealand later in the year. Foden’s effort on his own line was one. England’s decision, taken at the break, to commit more numbers to the tackle contest was another and their second-half counter-rucking virtually turned the game in their favour. England scored eight unanswered points in this period. Yachvili hit the posts with a penalty attempt in the 53rd minute and Rougerie got a ‘rough’ bounce to knock-on in the in-goal area, after a neat Trinh-Duc grubber. There were only centimetres, between success and failure, in these opportunities.
For all of this, England looked the better side and deserved the win. The intelligent, skilful and industrious Tom Palmer was a deserved man-of-the-match, but, for me, England’s rich form is down to their ‘middle five’. These are the guys who are virtually always involved, the back row and the halves. Wood, Haskell, Easter, Youngs and Flood were fantastic. Tom Wood and James Haskell came into the side for the injured Lewis Moody and Tom Croft. Moody, the captain, and Croft, an arguable ‘World XV selection’, appeared impossible to replace in the short term, but the replacements themselves will now be difficult to shift. At the very least, England’s squad depth has grown considerably. Wood could just have easily had the man-of-the-match award. Youngs was all touch and instinct as, time and again, he moved difficult ball away from French pressure to launch English counters. This is what all teams need from their scrum-half. How refreshing is this compared to the laborious, boring arrangement – and rearrangement – of stationary, ‘attacking’ forwards for the head-down, one-out crash into the nearest defender, that we see from run-of-the-mill scrum-halves, week-in, week-out. Flood is playing wonderfully well and shows new qualities each match. This week he added Ella-like handling to his repertoire. Twice he controlled difficult passes on his boot-laces and, almost casually, shifted the pass beautifully to continue the attack.
Team-work was also first class for England. Short, sharp, instinctive passes to support players, available with depth, in behind the ball-carrier, constantly troubled the quality French defence. At other times, it was power and drive – always with numbers and balance – which sought to breach the line. England’s world-class back-three of Foden, Cueto and Ashton always looked to take advantage of the slightest gap which these endeavours created. Ashton was unlucky to be recalled from his ‘try’, for a close forward pass, but Foden was a consistent threat and took his try well.
England have come a long way since their very ordinary, losing performance to Australia in Perth last year. Their development began when they turned the tables a week later in Sydney, with the selection of Ben Youngs ahead of Danny Care. Continued quality selection has steadily moved them forward – not without the occasional glitch, mind you, but the balance has always been positive.
France, on the other hand, continue to dither with their selections. The French selectors must be the only people in world rugby who thought that Poitrenaud was in better form than Traille, that Chabal could provide more for his team than Bonnaire, or that Yachvili was a better scrum-half than Parra. Parra plays closer to his forwards, passes off the ground and gives his backs ‘room to play’. Under pressure, the French passing was poor and the ‘pass behind the receiver’ was as significant in halting their attacks, as was the England defence. To top it off, Parra is also a better goal-kicker! It is a real risk, with these selectors, to play well; next week you’re out of the side! It was not that long ago – against Australia last November – that they left Harinordoquy out of the 22!
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