Rugby Union: Bandwagon starts to rumble

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ENGLAND CONTINUED to make significant progress as they move inexorably towards the Grand Slam and, more importantly, the World Cup. Do not lay any great store on the fact that they failed to get over the try line - this was a clinical performance with a good deal of technical merit. The Dublin experience has been built upon and their whole game looks carefully constructed with much more variety than was the case earlier in the season.

At the heart of their game lay a superlative line-out performance which enabled them completely to control the tempo of the match. While the French scrambled and scraped their own ball back, England were able to control their throws at will. At times they drove, more often they moved the ball straight off the top, but on each occasion they showed a lot more patience if they were unable to break through immediately. As a result they dominated the penalty count, which meant they were either able to keep the scoreboard ticking or to control yet another line-out.

The other main plank in this impressively sound display was their rock- solid defence. From high up in the stand the contrast between the heavily populated dead straight white defensive line covering the whole width of the field and its ragged blue counterpart was marked.

In the first quarter the French played very laterally and their attacks lacked conviction. Once they changed tack and began to launch men down narrow channels with short inter-passing they looked much more threatening. But neither tactic enabled them to get behind the English defence with any regularity.

This part of England's game now looks first-class, which a cynic might say is just as well, because the one area which Clive Woodward will not be satisfied with is the finishing. At least five clear try-scoring opportunities went begging for want of a clinical approach. Mike Catt, Jeremy Guscott and David Rees were all guilty of negligence but with Wilkinson knocking over the penalties such profligacy could be overcome on this occasion.

But concern over the lack of five-pointers should not obscure the many positive and encouraging elements of this game. England were in complete control for large chunks of the match and what is more looked genuinely comfortable - even to the extent that Tim Rodber decided to indulge in a spot of tactical kicking. The number of turnovers conceded in the key middle section of the field was very low and as a consequence they were able to maintain almost continuous pressure on the French and dominate field position. The laws of the game in modern rugby mean that if you are able to do this you do not tend to lose too many games.

Ironically the only real area of long-term concern lay within the traditional heart of the game at the set scrum. Here England were actually in some difficulties while France powered into every melee - particularly on their own ball. However, they were unable to establish quite enough dominance to trouble England significantly and Lawrence Dallaglio showed real power in still being able to run strongly over the gain line off the back of an unstable scrummage base.

As for France, they are in desperate straits. They do have many serious injuries but that does not explain the palpable lack of fitness among two or three of their forwards nor the absence of any kind of tactical kicking game. Apart from a few minutes midway through the first half when Xavier Garbajosa went so close, they did not exert any sustained pressure and in the final quarter England were holding them at arm's length with no difficulty whatsoever. They could not generate any drive in the loose, their line-out was a shambles and their midfield lacked physical clout. The damage inflicted by Wales on the Gallic psyche was there for all to see.

So England move on to Wembley with a bit of fine tuning still to do - but a lot further on than they were just one short month ago. As long as they do not allow themselves to be conned by the rejuvenated Welsh into an entertainment contest rather than a rugby match then a Grand Slam beckons.

Mark Evans is director of rugby at Saracens