Rugby Union: England learning to lose

Tim Glover watches the fire and flair of France engulf Dallaglio's team; Five Nations' Championship: Seven games without a win and Les Rosbifs are caught cold once again

HAD Clive Woodward been coach of the England football team, the tabloids would probably have been calling in his pension. England have now gone seven internationals without a victory and when Woodward looks in the mirror this morning the hairline, already prematurely receded, will, like the English coastline, have conceded another fraction to the elements.

His defence is that nobody has taken on such an itinerary in such a short space of time. Winless, but certainly not pointless. Nevertheless, England must be reaching the point where they think they have run into a brick wall. What more can they do?

The only consolation yesterday was that any team other than England in the Five Nations' Championship would have probably been annihilated in the second half. Instead, trailing 15-3 at half time, they dredged up some flair and phlegm, scored a typical Les Rosbifs try and were within spitting distance at 18-14 and again at 21-17.

Woodward said he was devastated at failing to beat Australia at Twickenham several months ago. He will be shattered again by yesterday's result, but England came as close as they dared.

International results, coming thicker and faster than ever, tend to blur the picture. Prior to the onslaught of the southern hemisphere countries at the tail end of 1997, France had won the Grand Slam, the only country to have beaten England. What has transpired since then is that England rose to the occasion against the All Blacks while the French were massacred by South Africa in the last international played at Parc des Princes.

France made eight changes after that humiliation and for moments yesterday looked like world beaters. Their strength in depth cannot be matched. One of the key players at Stade de France was Jean-Luc Sadourny, the Colomiers fullback. Colomiers? They won the ludicrously named European Conference last Sunday, in an all-French final, the day after Bath had somehow beaten Brive in the European Cup final.

Yet the Conference, considered to be the second-tier competition in the European theatre, contains such teams as Newcastle, Richmond and Saracens, three of the strongest teams in the English Premiership. Ask Richmond about Colomiers and they will tell you they are one of the best sides they have ever met.

England got close, but had they done a Bath it would have been a travesty. Derek Bevan, the Welsh referee originally scheduled for this match, turned an ankle in Ebbw Vale (one for the history books), and his replacement, David McHugh of Ireland, did not turn a blind eye in Paris.

As a result he took the bird from the vast majority of the 80,000 crowd. Some of his decisions helped England to "win" the try count in the second half 1-0. Some achievement against a French outfit that will put on plenty against the others in the Five Nations.

The French tries were classics, the first stemming from a beautiful pass to the right wing Philippe Bernat-Salles from Philippe Benetton, which left Austin Healey no chance. At that point the French looked in a different class. Fortunately for England, Benetton made a permanent pit stop. Had England lost two-thirds of their back row, their performance would surely have suffered. It didn't seem to make that much difference to France.

England took the conservative route in selecting Mike Catt at full back. Matt Perry hardly put a foot wrong in his previous appearances and if he was right then, he should have been right to face France. However, England did have the long bow of Gareth Archer. But they needed more strings to their bow to reawaken the ghosts of Agincourt.

Still, it took industrial heaters from England to ensure that the game went ahead at a stadium which cost an astonishing pounds 250m. The refurbishment of Windsor Castle cost pounds 37m and that lasted five years and utilised the finest craftsmen in the land. Never mind the refurbishment, the building of Windsor Castle itself cost less. And an agronomist is included on the payroll.

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