England totter homewards in tatters

Rugby World Cup: Qualifying place for 1999 tournament passed up by desperately tired and disappointed team

England 9 France 19

England's World Cup quest ended in despair and even disintegration last night when they lost the third-place play-off at Loftus Versfeld and with it an automatic passage into the 1999 tournament back home.

Back home is where they looked as if they would have preferred to be as they demonstrated next to no enthusiasm for a match they had made it clear they did not wish to play. Neither were France exactly dead-keen, but the World Cup's consolation prize is won in the heart more than the head and it was the French who had the bigger vital organ.

The English team consists of essentially conservative guys and it showed in their approach until, precisely as happened against New Zealand in the semi-final, desperation took over. Conservative or otherwise, it wasn't that they were traumatised by John Major's resignation because they didn't know anything about it. Seems a bit exaggerated, though, to walk the plank just because your team lost a rugby match.

Not that France played that much better than England, but what rugby there was to lay before an excellent crowd of 44,000 was played mostly by those in blue rather than white jerseys. Indeed the South Africans, who obviously predominated, ended up by giving England the bird - "boring, boring" - and even tossing oranges in their direction as they lined up for a critical defensive line- out.

This was the moment with 58 minutes gone when the match turned and, prosaic though the subsequent try was, the position had been established by a wonderful, quintessentially French attack in which N'Tamack, Cabannes, Sella and Sadourny had combined only for Saint- Andre to find his route blocked at the corner.

No matter. Olivier Merle won the ball and the French pack had embarrassingly little difficulty mauling Olivier Roumat the five yards that stood between them and the line. It was symptomatic of the worst aspects of English forward play that they should so easily have gone backwards.

But this was the way of it in the scrum, too. The All Blacks identified and exploited an area of weakness on Victor Ubogu's side and, the management having decided against the alternative of moving Jason Leonard to tight-head to accommodate Graham Rowntree at loose-head, England were sometimes sent into unwonted retreat.

This was an important psychological blow on the part of the French, who have laid their English bogy at the ninth attempt after seven years of trying. If there has been one certainty about England's play during their recent period of success it has been the accomplishment of their forwards in the tight phases, but last night it was as if, in what amounts to the 44th week of the 1994-95 season, they had nothing left to give.

There was worse to follow. England were already losing by three Thierry Lacroix penalties to two by Rob Andrew and, though Lacroix missed the conversion and Andrew pulled back his third penalty, by now it was too late. With a minute remaining Fabien Galthie opened up the blind side, drew Dewi Morris and sent the beguiling Emile N'Tamack past Rory Underwood and through Andrew. Lacroix missed the kick but with 112 points is the tournament's top scorer.

That this was the first time since 1991 that England had lost two Tests in a row reflected the baleful way the tournament has concluded for them. Will Carling claimed his team still had much to be proud of, but the fact is that in both semi-final and play-off they reverted to type until they were chasing the game.

This means kicking the ball so incessantly that spectators grow restless, instead of now and then attempting to release quick ball and also a dangerous but underutilised set of threequarters and a strike full-back who never strikes. It is no good at all moaning about opponents closing you down, not when everyone in South Africa has seen that the All Blacks can do it. If they can, why not England?

It is the English rugby player's instinct and all the talk about doing something different turned out to be an illusion. Except in the exceptional circumstances of the quarter-final against Australia, English rugby - as much as the England team - was quite simply inadequate.

ENGLAND: M Catt (Bath); I Hunter (Northampton), W Carling (Harlequins, capt), J Guscott (Bath), R Underwood (Leicester); R Andrew (Wasps), D Morris (Orrell); J Leonard, B Moore (Harlequins), V Ubogu (Bath), M Johnson (Leicester), M Bayfield, T Rodber (Northampton), S Ojomoh, B Clarke (Bath).

FRANCE: J-L Sadourny (Colomiers); E N'Tamack (Toulouse), P Sella (Agen), T Lacroix (Dax), P Saint-Andre (Montferrand, capt); F Mesnel (Racing Club), F Galthie (Colomiers); L Benezech (Racing Club), J-M Gonzales (Bayonne), C Califano (Toulouse), O Merle (Montferrand), O Roumat (Dax), A Benazzi (Agen), A Cigagna (Toulouse), L Cabannes (Racing Club). Temporary substitute: O Brouzet (Grenoble) for Merle, 34-39.

Referee: D Bishop (New Zealand).

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