Rugby: England fall into; the trap of risk-rugby

England (14) 20 France (6) 23 Dallaglio Tries Leflamand, La maison Cons Lamaison 2 Grayson 4 Pens Lamaison 2 Grayson Drop Lamaison

Jack Rowell would very much like to hear from anyone still keen to criticise his side for their recent addiction to the Twenty Minute Syndrome, a newly identified psychiatric condition that prevents apparently superior teams doing anything remotely exciting for the first hour of a match. On Saturday, England attempted to kick their habit by busting a collective gut from the outset. Look where it got them.

As early as last Tuesday, England's coach was showing clear signs of exasperation with the increasingly popular view that good sides not only hit the ground running, but wear track spikes rather than field studs on the soles of their footwear. Everyone had a word of advice for Jack in the build-up to France, from old Springboks and current All Blacks to Joe Public in all his guises, and the consensus was that England should shed a little of the Martin Johnson and go for a sprinkling of Michael Johnson instead.

England had been there before, of course, notably in 1991, when a Wallaby charm offensive persuaded Will Carling to adopt a dazzlingly bold, all- singing, all-dancing game plan in the World Cup final. Result? Almost as many chuckles in Brisbane and Sydney as can now be heard in the salons of Paris and the sidestreets of Brive .

Rowell must be fuming, partly with himself and wholly with his side. "I'm recovering mentally, but it's a slow process," he said on Saturday night. "We really ought to be able to close a game down at 20-6 up, but it seems that is not in our portfolio at the moment.

"The ability of the French in terms of counter-attacking dictates it is never easy to shut them out entirely, but that doesn't mean we have to play risk rugby against them."

Much of the talk around Twickenham in the subdued aftermath of England's fourth home Five Nations defeat in a decade - no mean record, to be fair - concerned Rowell's uncertain future in the national hierarchy, which was rather missing the point. The debate should have concerned the immediate future of a flawed back division who managed to perform the notoriously difficult feat of creating a sow's ear from a silk purse in a last quarter of breathtaking incompetence. During that time they let slip a winning lead built on the accuracy of Paul Grayson's boot and the lung-power of Lawrence Dallaglio.

The longer Austin Healey, the Leicester scrum-half, and Jeremy Guscott, the Bath centre, are asked to warm their backsides on the bench, the longer England will take to realise Rowell's vision of an "interactive" game; indeed, they may never get there if the selectors keep faith with the present line-up, for the key elements of instinct, pace, guile and a sharp appreciation of the unorthodox are conspicuous by their absence.

If the now traditional hour of ball-breaking, spirit-sapping, thumb-screwing work by Jason Leonard and his pack fails to create the usual ocean of space, as it did on this occasion, the England back line looks far less threatening than that which applied the coup de grace so spectacularly against Scotland and Ireland.

The early width and fluidity demanded by Rowell's critics was there for all to see on Saturday, but it still took an epic flanker's try from Dallaglio - "all that sevens training was bound to pay off sooner or later" - to open up the French. And in a sense, the determination to interact let the Tricolores off the hook. When push came to shove in the final 20 minutes a visiting pack that had expected to be on its knees by then found itself standing straight and strong and still staring into the eyeballs of the opposition.

It was then that the decision-makers in the England side went missing. Andy Gomarsall, full of zap and energy early on, became so ponderous at scrum-half that he made John Major's deliberations over the General Election date look positively impetuous.

The hesitancy seeped outwards like a virus; Grayson's wayward kicking under pressure made life dangerously easy for Jean-Luc Sadourny, the classiest act on the pitch, while in contrast, Jon Sleightholme and Tony Underwood found the cultured punting of Alain Penaud and Christophe Lamaison difficult to pick and impossible to run back.

Astonishing as it may seem, the side trailing by 14 points maintained its shape far better than the one that might have considered itself home and dry as the clock ticked past the hour mark. Once Laurent Leflamand had exposed Underwood's positional shortcomings to pinch a life-giving score in the right corner, Lamaison's decisive try-conversion-penalty routine in the last 12 minutes had an air of inevitability about it.

Pierre Villepreux, whose coaching partnership with Jean-Claude Skrela and Jo Maso gives the French a top table of mesmerising richness, made the crucial point when he said: "We had faith in our style and we refused to surrender even the tiniest element of it. At 20-6 down it became more important to maintain our approach, not less." That was precisely what England failed to do.

While the French played within their limitations - Penaud, still carrying an ankle injury, tried nothing extravagant while Philippe Carbonneau, his half-back partner for club and country, chivvied away industriously without ever considering the sort of gambles to which Gomarsall fell prey - Phil de Glanville's men betrayed a fatal inability to revert to type when the situation grew tense.

De Glanville, it should be said, turned in his best international performance of the season. Utterly secure in defence and more of a handful with ball in hand than at any point since being asked to shoulder the burden of leadership, he made one or two impressive points to Fran Cotton and those others in the Lions hierarchy who consider him no more than a workaday centre with ideas above his station. That, though, will be very cold comfort indeed as he contemplates the passing of a golden Grand Slam opportunity.

"It feels like a disaster but it probably isn't," said the captain. "We'll take a number of positives from the game because we played some wonderful attacking rugby."

Very philosophical, very Gallic, very different to the old days when Brian Moore would, in words of four letters, urge his countrymen onwards and upwards. Perhaps that was the missing ingredient on Saturday. A touch of the Anglo-Saxon.

ENGLAND: T Stimpson (Newcastle); J Sleightholme (Bath), W Carling (Harlequins), P de Glanville (Bath, capt), T Underwood (Newcastle); P Grayson (Northampton), A Gomarsall (Wasps); G Rowntree (Leicester), M Regan (Bristol), J Leonard (Harlequins), M Johnson (Leicester), S Shaw (Bristol), L Dallaglio (Wasps), T Rodber (Northampton), R Hill (Saracens).

FRANCE: J-L Sadourny (Colomiers); L Leflamand (Bourgoin), C Lamaison (Brive), S Glas (Bourgoin), D Venditti (Brive); A Penaud (Brive), P Carbonneau (Brive); C Califano (Toulouse), M Dal Maso (Agen), F Tournaire (Narbonne), O Merle (Montferrand), H Miorin (Toulouse), A Benazzi (Agen, capt), F Pelous (Dax), O Magne (Dax). Replacements: R Castel (Beziers) for Miorin, 48; M de Rougemont (Toulon) for Benazzi, 65.

Referee: J Fleming (Scotland).

FIVE NATIONS TABLE

P W D L F A Pts

France 3 3 0 0 82 57 6

England 3 2 0 1 107 42 4

Wales 3 1 0 2 81 72 2

Scotland 3 1 0 2 70 85 2

Ireland 4 1 0 3 57 141 2

Results

19 January: Ireland 15 France 32; Scotland 19 Wales 34.

1 February: England 41 Scotland 13; Wales 25 Ireland 26.

15 February: Ireland 6 England 46; France 27 Wales 22.

1 March: England 20 France 23; Scotland 38 Ireland 10.

Remaining fixtures

15 March: France v Scotland (Parc des Princes); Wales v England (Cardiff).

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