No crisis for; England after drama

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Anyone with a notion of fair play - and that is supposed to be a particularly, perhaps peculiarly English characteristic - might wonder at an attempt to introduce recrimination into the aftermath of this agonising last-ditch defeat.

But there it is: nowadays in English sport idols are preferred to have feet of clay and, though you could justifiably take a sensibly positive attitude to England's performance, no sooner had it concluded than those who speak for the team were being primed for a backlash.

Forget the entirely positive feature that a side containing seven who had never played here had been within a minute of an honourable, even heroic draw. There has grown a presumption of victory, based on the English successes of recent times, which reflects pure arrogance and the converse is that when victory does not follow in accordance with this presumption, there is a crisis.

England led for much of a tryless match, indeed matched France kick for kick until the impish Thomas Castaignede, 21 yesterday, dropped France's winning goal. In a number of significant technical respects England played poorly but in others - implacable defence and an unbendable resolve amid an intimidatingly febrile atmosphere - they came through famously.

Not withstanding, the biennial English supremacy in Paris in the '90s, these latter qualities should not be underestimated, not on a stage that "the lesser nations", as one interlocutor patronisingly described the Celtic countries to Jack Rowell, have found so inimical during the same period.

You are going to take some flak after this, Rowell was informed along with a supplementary question wondering where he went from here. The manager gritted his teeth, as is his wont on these occasions, and said: "I don't understand it. You've just seen an England team pouring their hearts into it. If you are going to say that, so be it, but I won't be reading it or listening to it or viewing it."

As Rowell always says he never reads newspapers, nothing has changed. But lest anyone imagine this is another managerial obfuscation to go with the previous recrimination that followed last month's Western Samoa match, Will Carling too was incredulous that such a knife-edge outcome could prompt such a negative response.

Jack, the captain was informed, will get some flak. "How can you say that?" Carling rejoined. "There were some things that weren't good enough and we have to be honest. But there was a lot I thought was very, very good and for England to go forward we have to take the positives. There were a lot of them and, whatever you say, that was a much better performance than we have produced this season."

OK, that's enough self-justification. If England are indeed as honest as Carling wishes, they will be seriously addressing their line-out and scrummaging before receiving Wales at Twickenham on 3 February, and equally importantly have a hard look at what they do and where on the field. Sounds familiar?

It is a continuing problem that English tactical choices are so often so poor. If you have a retreating scrum, as England increasingly did as Saturday's game wound towards its painful conclusion, ostensibly clever back-row moves merely cede the initiative and, in keeping with reputation, the England forwards never worked out an alternative.

In his post-match analysis, Rowell focused on this and also the failure - which presumably is Ben Clarke's, since he was leading the pack - to vary the line-out calls. England were terrible in this critical area at the start while Mark Regan was working out a way to locate his jumpers and though things improved the overall statistics, broadly even, hid the amount of ball the French had pinched by disrupting with impunity the English throw.

But these are tactical matters that can surely be improved even in a fortnight. Strategically, the England management have a more profound choice to make, especially after the Paris plan of consciously reverting to former type; "constructively regressing", in Rowell's curious expression. They eschewed the grandeur, running-rugby vision of which we have heard ad nauseam and France played it precisely the same. To the fulfilment of constructive regression one might have thought the excluded Dean Richards, a temporary replacement while Clarke was having attention in the first half, was well suited.

In fact, England began at a lick, Emile Ntamack's wayward defending of Mike Catt's apparently innocuous grubber-kick was reminiscent of nothing so much as Rory Underwood as Underwood himself got his left hand to the ball. English referees have been awarding such tries this season but helpful replay evidence showed that David McHugh, who anyway is Irish, was correct.

Less than a minute had elapsed, and the game was still in its first quarter when the English backs combined for the only other time worth mentioning. Carling questionably rejected the outside by taking play into the heart of the French defence and Underwood then veered into a tackle before throwing a wild pass at the ground instead of at Catt, who was well placed to score.

That was the end of English try chances. Eventually they led through Paul Grayson's first penalty and he added a second with the last kick of the first half after Thierry Lacroix's first for France. It was England's good fortune that Lacroix's radar was so inaccurate, three penalties from six kicks falling decisively short of his customary average.

However, in the second half after the interlude of a yellow card for Michel Perie he dropped a goal that levelled the scores again and took France into the lead for the first time after 63 minutes with his second penalty only for a Grayson drop to restore equality.

France rid themselves of their Anglo-complex in the World Cup's third place match last June but you have to remember that they had not beaten England at the Parc, or even in the Five Nations, since 1988 to appreciate the impassioned response to a hectic finale that rendered the match more memorable than it probably deserved.

Five minutes remained when Lacroix's third penalty restored the French lead, Two minutes later another Grayson drop goal made it 12-12 and finally Castaignede really did have the drop on England. Hardly a great game, certainly not a great French performance, but, as yesterday's Journal du Dimanche put it, for France it was nothing less than "l'exultant orgasme".

FRANCE: J-L Sadourny (Colomiers); E Ntamack (Toulouse), R Dourthe (Dax), T Castaignede (Toulouse), P Saint Andre (Montferrand, capt); T Lacroix (Dax), P Carbonneau (Toulouse); M Perie (Toulon), J-M Gonzales (Bayonne), C Califano (Toulouse), O Merle (Montferrand), O Roumat (Dax), A Benazzi (Agen), F Pelous (Dax), L Cabannes (Racing Club). Replacement: P Bernat- Salles (Begles) for Sadourny, 54.

ENGLAND: M Catt; J Sleightholme (Bath), W Carling (Harlequins, capt), J Guscott (Bath), R Underwood (Leicester); P Grayson, M Dawson (Northampton); G Rowntree (Leicester), M Regan (Bristol), J Leonard (Harlequins), M Johnson (Leicester), M Bayfield (Northampton), S Ojomoh, B Clarke (Bath), L Dallaglio (Wasps). Temporary substitute: D Richards (Leicester) for Clarke, 16-25.

Referee: D McHugh (Ireland).

Comments