Rugby Union: England's hard-nosed day

England 21 France 10 Penalties: Wilkinson 7 Try: Comba Conversion Castaignede Penalty Castaignede Half-time: 9-0 Attendance: 76,000
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The Independent Online
"I THINK I'll stick to football from now on," muttered a white- shirted England supporter into his mobile phone as the few remaining after-match drinkers took farewell gulps from their plastic pint mugs and sloshed their way out of Twickenham's Ruck and Maul bar. On the face of it, he had a point: the red rose performance had been decidedly functional - masses of David Batty, very little David Ginola - while the strangely conciliatory French forwards had paid mere lip service to the spirit of Cantona. There was no zip and even less zap. Come back Brian Moore, all is forgiven.

But beauty, we are constantly reminded, is in the eye of the beholder and when a technical obsessive like Phil Larder is doing the beholding, it can be found in the unlikeliest places. Certainly, there was a good deal in Saturday's Five Nations occasion that tickled Larder's aesthetic fancy: the former Great Britain rugby league coach saw cherry blossom in England's defensive alignment, a Monet landscape in their exertion of pressure and a veritable Claudia Schiffer in Matt Perry's try-saving tackle on Xavier Garbajosa as the dangerous Tricolore wing sought to turn the game with a first-half try in the right corner.

To Larder's way of thinking - and in a hard-nosed professional era where winners come first and losers nowhere, his way of thinking is increasingly in the ascendant - the glittering prizes go to those sides who consider parsimony to be a virtue rather than a vice. Think of Leicester in the Allied Dunbar Premiership, or South Africa in last year's Tri-Nations. And now think of England, who recently kept their line intact against Australia and Ireland, leaked only one five-pointer to the Springbok world champions and would, but for an injury-time fluke at the weekend, have blanked out the most naturally gifted attackers in the game for only the fifth time in the last four decades of Anglo-French rivalry.

"We took a very hard look at ourselves after conceding three rather unnecessary tries to the Scots in our opening Five Nations game last month and decided that our defensive discipline had let us down badly," said Larder, who has erected more "No Entry" signs in his 54 years than the Department of Transport. "If you look at the tape, there was nothing much wrong with our contact work. The problem concerned our positioning: we were tackling man on man, rather than operating a zonal defence. Our hits were good and strong, but the Scots backed themselves to get the ball away either in or shortly before contact and put people in the holes.

"There was a big improvement against Ireland and I've seen another step up on this occasion. The French asked us more questions than either the Wallabies or the Springboks - they really are extraordinarily threatening from one to 15 - but we pinned them back and denied them space. At times, they put together a dozen passes and still couldn't break out of their own 22. The late try was a disappointment, yes, but I'm not going to cry about it; no defence is watertight against a speculative kick ahead, especially when you get a wicked bounce. The thing now is to take the good things out of the game and prepare for the Grand Slam match with Wales, who have some creative runners of their own."

By the time Franck Comba pocketed Philippe Carbonneau's awkward diagonal chip and slipped away from the wrong-footed Perry, England were out of sight. They had not disappeared from French view in the grand manner, far from it; every last one of their points were registered via the left boot of Jonny Wilkinson and given that all but one of his record-equalling seven penalties were fairly workaday in terms of angles and distances, the teenager's feat was not of the same magnitude as that of Simon Hodgkinson, whose marksmanship at a wind-buffeted Parc des Princes nine years retains pride of place in the goal-kicking pantheon.

But Lawrence Dallaglio's methodically prepared and sharply focused side are now laying down all kinds of markers for this autumn's World Cup. While Dan Luger and David Rees, now sadly departed for a six-week spell of intensive physiotherapy on a badly sprained ankle, undoubtedly craved more of the ball during the second half, England were in no hurry to apologise for winning a very loseable match in precisely the same way that great All Black teams have prevailed since Noah was in short pants.

They squeezed the French so hard - not so much in the scrummage, where Sylvain Marconnet and Franck Tournaire dominated the grunt-and-groan contest before the break, but pretty well everywhere else - that the visitors conceded 20 penalties, 14 of them in their own half. By contrast, Dallaglio and company were penalised just nine times in 80 minutes and committed only three of those offences on their own doorstep. If good teams convert pressure into three-point opportunities, there was something state of the art about England at the weekend.

Mind you, they also invented new ways of not scoring. Mike Catt's extraordinary decision to ignore an entire battalion of support in favour of a home run of his own was the most cringingly embarrassing moment of the championship to date - Clive Woodward's expression was positively Gorgonesque - while Jeremy Guscott should have finished in the left corner after Catt's diagonal kick, Luger's clever impersonation of a line-out jumper and Perry's instantaneous flick inside had unlocked the door. One of these fine days, England will be made to pay for their carelessness.

Suffice to say that the French would not have thrown away such chances like so much confetti. Thomas Castaignede, whose potential meeting with Scotland's Gregor Townsend in Paris in three weeks' time should leave every rugby connoisseur in Europe in a state of exquisite expectation, spent virtually the whole 80 minutes on the back foot yet still managed to play like some bleach-blond Barry John. The outside-half from Castres gave his heart and soul to the occasion, which was more than could be said for some of his forwards, and his honesty in tackling and turning every last member of the England pack was no less remarkable than the accuracy of his line-kicking or the boundless imagination he brought to his attacking game.

Who knows? Had Perry not forced Garbajosa to slide a foot into touch a mere nanosecond before touching the ball down at the right corner flag during the visitors' lone purple patch before the interval, Castaignede might have taken the rest of his side with him into the stratosphere. As it was, too many of the big French names - Ibanez, Pelous, Carbonneau, even Ntamack - remained stuck on the launch pad. It is not always possible to set the blue touchpaper alight with a single match.

ENGLAND: M Perry (Bath); D Rees (Sale), J Guscott (Bath), J Wilkinson (Newcastle), D Luger (Harlequins); M Catt (Bath), K Bracken (Saracens); J Leonard (Harlequins), R Cockerill (Leicester), D Garforth (Leicester), M Johnson (Leicester), T Rodber (Northampton), R Hill (Saracens), L Dallaglio (Wasps, capt), N Back (Leicester).

Replacements: M Dawson (Northampton) for Bracken, 34; M Corry (Leicester) for Hill, 49; N Beal (Northampton) for Rees, 63; V Ubogu (Bath) for Garforth, 78.

FRANCE: E Ntamack (Toulouse); X Garbajosa (Toulouse), P Giordani (Dax), F Comba (Stade Francais), C Dominici (Stade Francais); T Castaignede (Castres), P Carbonneau (Brive); S Marconnet (Stade Francais), R Ibanez (Perpignan, capt), F Tournaire (Toulouse), O Brouzet (Begles-Bordeaux), F Pelous (Toulouse), T Lievremont (Perpignan), C Juillet (Stade Francais), R Castel (Beziers). Replacements: C Califano (Toulouse) for Marconnet, 47; D Auradou (Stade Francais) for Pelous, 65; M Raynaud (Narbonne) for Lievremont, 65.

Referee: C Hawke (New Zealand; J Fleming, Scotland).

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