reports from Paris
In the irascible aftermath of England's moderate victory over Western Samoa probably the last thing Jack Rowell needed was a visit to Parc des Princes with which to try once more to demonstrate the efficacy of "dynamic", "inclusive", "all-encompassing" rugby.
At the outset of another Five Nations' Championship, precisely what these expressions mean in practice has still to be determined, and until Will Carling's team play in these ways we will not actually find out. Both captain and manager have talked a good game as long as Rowell has held his position - and in Carling's case since long before - but with the odd notable exceptions talk is all it has been.
Carling has been at it again this week, declaring his squad's view of the primacy of style over the substance of simple victory, of the future over the present. Laudably far-sighted as this is, the response of English adherence to this stylistic imperative can easily be imagined if it were to entail defeat.
And though Carling's England have won four times in succession at the Parc - four times more than any other home country during that period - defeat this afternoon is an eventuality that is all too possible for a team generally in transition and specifically with unproven half-backs.
Well paid they may now be, but on their behalf Carling pleads for patience and understanding. "We have brought in some new, younger players, very exciting players who are going to take a while to find their feet," he said. "Maybe we have tried too fast to play an all-encompassing type of rugby."
All the more reason, then, for Carling to assume the responsibilities of captaincy more fully than was ever necessary when he was comfortingly accompanied by Rob Andrew, Brian Moore and the rest. Once England are out there today, even Dean Richards will not be of much assistance on the bench.
This means Carling must - perhaps for the first time in his captaincy - lead not only by personal example but also by tactical command. The South Africa and Samoa matches were perfect - perfectly awful - examples of the English habit, even during the years of success, of failing to address on the hoof the specific problems thrown up by specific circumstances.
The ready response is to blame Carling for not taking matters in hand, in the sense that if the captain does not do so who will? Carling has thus been left in no doubt by the manager that more is expected of him both as player and captain and his response has been to lead what Rowell calls the "blackboard sessions" during this week's preparations both in London and Paris.
It is a modest enough beginning, but a beginning for all that and a change from the days when Moore, whose pre-match francophobe ritual has been sadly missed here not least by the French themselves, would attempt to get Carling to explain precisely what was the English game plan. No answer - well not much of one, anyway - came the stern reply.
It is Carling's misfortune that not all of his players are necessarily au fait with the game plan even now, and yesterday's 20 minutes at the Club Orsay will not have made any difference. In the aftermath of the cosy Geoff Cooke era, it was Rowell's intention to sew a certain uncertainty in his players in order, supposedly, to challenge them to broaden their perspective and widen their game.
It has patently not worked, not yet, but the reasons were justifiable: to turn England from a side who would win the Five Nations more often than not into one who would beat the rest of the world more often than not. In this context, as Rowell has exasperatedly noted, the World Cup quarter-final defeat of Australia was ascribed to over-achievement and the semi-final defeat by New Zealand to under-achievement.
Which means he, like his team, cannot in the end win, because when England do win there is bound to be something wrong with the way it is accomplished and when they do not there is simply something wrong. Forget it, Jack: Paris may be beautiful even in the wintertime, but the Parc is a bearpit and any win here is its own justification.
How England set about it will be a fascination after the post-Samoa recriminations. When Rowell said he wanted England to revert to basics, he emphatically did not mean the former forward obsession which dragged them to their 1991 Grand Slam and the '91 World Cup final.
But he did mean sensible rugby in which the basic things are done efficiently. A solid scrummage and productive line-out are prerequisites of a fluid game just as much of the alternative grunt and grind, and when England have the ball it is pointless for them to imagine they can do what they like with it wherever they like.
Clearly, Rowell has thus far failed to inculcate these truisms into even his most experienced players. "Don't take a tackle in your own half," is a managerial mantra, so what do Rory Underwood and Carling - Underwood and Carling, mind you - do against the Springboks? Foul up, and Chester Williams, the try-scoring beneficiary, will be forever in their debt.
Today Carling and co begin a championship in Paris for the first time since they last lost here in 1988. France are fielding a back division of such exceptional class and promise, with not a qualm about the presence of two 20-year-olds in the centre opposite Carling and Jeremy Guscott, but England dare not perpetrate such indiscretions anywhere on the field let alone in their own half. You might call it back to basics.
Five Nations' Championship, pages 22 and 23
FRANCE v ENGLAND
at Parc des Princes, Paris
J-L Sadournay Colomiers 15 M Catt Bath
E Ntamack Toulouse 14 J Sleightholme Bath
R Dourthe Dax 13 W Carling Harlequins, capt
T Castaignede Toulouse 12 J Guscott Bath
P Saint-Andre Montferrand, capt 11 R Underwood Leicester
T Lacroix Dax 10 P Grayson Northampton
P Carbonneau Toulouse 9 M Dawson Northampton
M Perie Toulon 1 G Rowntree Leicester
J-M Gonzales Bayonne 2 M Regan Bristol
C Califano Toulouse 3 J Leonard Leicester
O Merle Montferrand 4 M Johnson Leicester
O Roumat Dax 5 M Bayfield Northampton
A Benazzi Agen 6 S Ojomoh Bath
F Pelous Dax 8 B Clarke Bath
L Cabannes Racing Club 7 L Dallaglio Wasps
Referee: D McHugh (Ireland). Kick-off: 2.0 (BBC1).Reuse content