England's juggernaut drives on

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The Independent Online
England 31 France 10

As ruthlessness in pursuit of sporting success is not considered an English trait, this example - a performance of quite awesome power and authority given against another live contender, if you please - was of incalculable significance for the approaching World Cup.

Incalculable because it is not clear what it portends. Whether the effect has to do with confidence, now unimaginably high, or style of play is not destined to be answered until England get to South Africa. For now, Will Carling's team remain potential rather than prospective World Cup winners and maybe that is no bad thing.

But if it is accepted that the basis of winning rugby is always laid by forward play, then England have as solid a basis as they could conceive. France were utterly unable to cope; on this day it was possible to believe that neither would Australia, New Zealand or South Africa.

If, in the golden afterglow, England are sensible enough to keep their sense of proportion, it will be even more to their credit. "We are getting fairly critical of ourselves," Carling said. "We have got to improve."

This was solid sense, because Le Crunch was neither as crisp nor as juicy as pre-match imaginings had anticipated. That was partly because England were so dominant, partly because France were so lacking in passion, so low on the high-octane spirit that had driven them to their two Test wins in New Zealand last summer.

Given the game's advance billing, it was remarkable how flat - these things are relative, mind you - the atmosphere inside Twickenham was. You could put it down on the one hand to the unexpectedly wide disparity between the teams, to England's evident and substantial superiority in every aspect other than the line-out.

On the other, the French have got themselves into such a tangle about discipline and fair play that they have in effect emasculated themselves, as if they have grown so nervous of crossing the line between acceptable aggression and unacceptable violence that they are constantly running round on tiptoe.

This game suggested a soupcon of volatility would do no harm whatever, though you would never have guessed from the impassive response to defeat of the coach, Pierre Berbizier, not to mention that of the players themselves. For them, it had none of the uncomfortable resonance of recent Anglo-French encounters. Instead, it had been a good game - and even a reasonable French performance - in which they had been well beaten by a far better side.

That it was the eighth time in a row by England apparently made no difference, yet these defeats follow each other at a time when France are capable of beating every other side, including even Australia, in the world, so there is a serious psychological hang-up here which has made a fatalist of even Berbizier.

Perhaps in a different setting - how about the World Cup in South Africa? - the psychology would be different. What we still do not know is how Carling's forwards would act against opposition which managed what has this season been unmanageable: to pull them wide and move them about the pitch.

Until it happens, if it ever does, no one can tell. The mammoth England pack, especially the back row, are adept at throttling the life out of opponents, and if their immense physical attributes continue to take as severe a toll as they have of the Irishand French, then arguments about mobility or playing conditions are more or less irrelevant.

Thus England are half-way to a Grand Slam with conclusive - and not dissimilar - performances in diametrically different conditions against Ireland and France. Apart from the length of the grass, Twickenham on Saturday could almost have been Loftus Versfeld or Ellis Park and yet in a curious way England's triumph told us next to nothing about how they might respond to fast going.

That said, you could hardly quibble about England's biggest win over France since the 37-0 of 1911 (a result that would have been 51-0 with modern scoring values). It is just that now, if ever, they need to realise - as they surely are - that euphoria will not win them the World Cup.

"If we are able to get through successfully it will be a major step forward, but England have a lot of work to do when you see the southern-hemisphere sides play," Jack Rowell, their manager, said. "There are two games to go - and only two games - beforewe get to Durban."

If this is to mean anything, it will have to involve a freer, looser even, approach against Wales and Scotland, or else the new England will go into their pool games in South Africa stuck in the old mode. On Saturday they took the game to France through the most direct route possible and it was so efficacious there was nothing - certainly no emergency - to force any alternative.

Jeremy Guscott's try and Rob Andrew's kicks, amounting to 13 points in reply to Thierry Lacroix's opening penalty, were a slender reward for protracted first-half ascendancy. When Sebastien Viars's try completed a move almost as glorious as France's "counter-attack from the end of the world" that won their Test in Auckland last July the margin was down to three.

As it happened, there was no cause for alarm. Each time they gained some points France immediately conceded some more and, finally, Tony Underwood's two late tries put a gloss on the score that England really did deserve. If Underwood pushed Philippe Saint-Andre in the chase for the first (which he did), Saint-Andre was already obstructing Underwood when he should have been concentrating on reaching the ball.

Uncontentiously, the second was a piece of set-piece perfection, a blind-side move from a rare and precious attacking scrum involving Tim Rodber and Mike Catt which ushered Underwood to the corner and secured an end result to send a shudder through the rest of the rugby world.

England: Tries T Underwood 2, Guscott; Conversions Andrew 2; Penalties Andrew 4. France: Try Viars; Conversion Lacroix; Penalty Lacroix.

ENGLAND: M Catt (Bath); T Underwood (Leicester), W Carling (Harlequins, capt), J Guscott (Bath), R Underwood (Leicester); R Andrew (Wasps), K Bracken (Bristol); J Leonard, B Moore (Harlequins), V Ubogu (Bath), M Johnson (Leicester), M Bayfield, T Rodber (Northampton), D Richards (Leicester), B Clarke (Bath).

FRANCE: J-L Sadourny (Colomiers); P Bernat-Salles (Pau), P Sella (Agen), T Lacroix (Dax), P Saint-Andre (Montferrand, capt); C Deylaud (Toulouse), G Accoceberry (Begles); L Benezech (Racing Club), J-M Gonzales (Bayonne), C Califano (Toulouse), O Brouzet (Grenoble), O Roumat (Dax), A Benazzi, P Benetton (Agen), L Cabannes (Racing Club). Replacements: L Seigne (Brive) for Benezech, 23; S Viars (Brive) for Sadourny, 37. Temporary substitute: M de Rougemont (Toulon) for Gonzales, 5-7.

Referee: K McCartney (Scotland).

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