Despondency has been replaced by a sense of relief

INSIDE THE ENGLAND CAMP
Click to follow
The Independent Online
We have now been on the road for five weeks. Five weeks of incessant meetings, training, videos, analysis and treatment. Your body takes a physical pounding and your mind the mental equivalent. Add to that the body blow of losing Sunday's semi-final and everything points to today's game against France being one of the most difficult of the tour.

A lot is at stake. Failure to win would mean that we would need to play in qualifying matches for the next World Cup - a potential trip to Bucharest for all you travelling supporters!

Furthermore, we have a proud record of not having lost against the French since 1988, and it is also that long since England lost two Test matches back to back. History provides us with an important incentive, but it is not as important as our future.

This squad has a lot of self-belief, and it is vital that we win today to ensure that we carry this forward for the years to come. England have already achieved a lot in the past five years, but that is nothing to what we can achieve with the talent at our disposal.

Talk is cheap though, and the struggle this week has been to instil the necessary drive into the battle-weary legs and minds of those who take to the field today and all in the condensed time-frame of just four days.

This, I have been informed, is the reason why I am to be rested for the game. In the interests of my long-term participation in England's success, Jack Rowell would prefer that I were not plunged straight back in after the traumas of last Sunday.

It is never nice to see someone else wearing the No 14 jersey for England, not withstanding my utmost respect for Ian Hunter. However, a day's despondency has been replaced by a sense of relief that for me the tour is over on the playing side, and mentally I have been spared the need to gear myself up for it again.

However, I would have liked to have been given the chance of remounting my bicycle, as it were, and restore any doubts people may have of my being able to come back from a "Jonah-wash". This, though, is a risk Jack was not prepared to take and I respect that. So, what of today's opposition?

The enigmatic French, often suppressed when at home and stifled when away during the Five Nations, have reached their best form when touring. Of late, this has included series wins over South Africa and New Zealand on foreign soil. This form guide is further aided by the hard grounds here in South Africa which best suit their open style of rugby.

They therefore represent the formidable outfit you would expect to encounter in a third-fourth place play-off, and so cannot be treated lightly just because of our previous record against them.

However, this England side has improved manifoldly from the team that beat France 31-10 at Twickenham just four months ago. We have built on the more forward- oriented game so successful back at home with the more dynamic game that enabled us to outscore the All Blacks 26-22 in the second half of last Sunday's semi-final.

This encompasses mini rucks and mauls, involving fewer players in the tight, allowing quicker release of ball, and giving room for the likes of Tim Rodber and Ben Clarke to make foraging runs in the loose. When this works well there is almost a flow to our game, in which players react sharply to the situation at hand and play is not forced, but allowed to occur naturally.

Furthermore, our exploits in South Africa seem to have led to a great deal of public expectation and support back at home. This ground-breaking progress will all be for nought if we throw it away today and lose. In the interest of rugby union in England, therefore, a win is vital today.

Comments