Rugby Union: England's scrum needs urgent renovation

France 24 England 17; Tries Bernat-Salles, Dominici Try Back Penalties Lamaison 2 Penalties Grayson 4 Conversion Lamaison Drops Castaignede, Sadourny Half-time 15-3 Attendance 80,000
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The Independent Online
The space-age sporting pile known as the Stade de France may never inspire the landslide of architectural controversy generated by the Eiffel Tower, or the post-modernist glass pyramid plonked smack in front of the Louvre, but its enemies have already dismissed it as an unlovable leftover from the set of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. There was nothing close about the encounter that opened this season's Five Nations' Championship, though. The French were on a different planet as they set about exposing Clive Woodward's brave new world as so much science fiction.

Thanks largely to the mild insanities of the rugby rulebook, striking features of which include non-competitive line-outs and the virtual abandonment of the ruck as an attacking dynamic, England lost by a mere seven points when they might have conceded 40.

Two glistening French tries in the opening quarter were followed by no fewer than five might-have-beens and but for a bovine second row's pass here, a marginal forward pass there and a knock-on somewhere else, not to mention a couple of distinctly dodgy refereeing calls from David McHugh, Les Tricolores would have been off the scoreboard.

At least Woodward was characteristically up front in accepting the truth that lay behind the deceit of the final scoreline. "Of course the score flattered us," the coach said. "It would have been a travesty had we got out of there with a win, even though we played far better after the interval and might conceivably have snatched it.

"All our Englishness came out of us for some reason and it caused us to play too conservatively, but I'm not going to change the way I think about the game.

"The objective is to get to next year's World Cup with a team capable of winning it and while we could grind out the odd result now, we can't expect to beat sides like France on the big occasion without playing in a certain way. It's not difficult to ask players to perform in the style I want to see, the difficulty is getting them to put it in place. But I'm committed to moving our game forward."

Fine words. But the pressure on Woodward to re-root his vision in something approaching reality is mounting slowly but surely and the match with Wales at Twickenham on Saturday week is now of the must-win variety.

Woodward may be suspicious of the back-to-basics approach - it did not do much for John Major's trouser-dropping government, after all - but as England have already been caught with their pants down, he has nothing to lose by returning to fundamentals.

That fundamentalism should apply initially and immediately to the front row, which once again resembled a toothless pensioner chewing hopelessly on a rock cake.

Both Woodward and Lawrence Dallaglio, a desperately disappointed English captain, went the extra diplomatic mile in deflecting attention from the scrummaging issue, but the sight of the astonishing Christian Califano imposing his great bull-like torso on Darren Garforth at the set-piece before steaming 40 metres upfield with the ball encased in one huge, hairy paw was pretty definitive.

"I think the scrum was the determining factor out there," acknowledged Olivier Magne, the predatory flanker from Brive. "We were always going forward and that enabled my back row colleagues and myself to get to the English in areas they could not afford to be tackled in.

"Apart from the attacking opportunities created by a strong scrum, it is also the first and most important line of defence. Their back row was in trouble all game because England could not match us at the set-piece."

It did not help the visitors' cause that Martin Johnson, last summer's Lions captain and a walking embodiment of English brawn, found Olivier Brouzet far too hot to handle. Indeed, Johnson is too quiet by half at the moment. Perhaps he knew it would be a bad day at the office when he saw Garath Archer, one of the most physically imposing specimens in the red rose pack, being stripped of the ball by Philippe Carbonneau, who usually requires a trampoline to get on nodding terms with Archer's navel.

Only four Englishmen -Neil Back, Kyran Bracken and the two bold and combative wings, David Rees and Austin Healey - emerged with their reputations enhanced, although Jeremy Guscott's tantalising flickers of attacking genius kept the home midfield on red alert. On the other side of half-way, however, the French were delivering en masse through Jean-Luc Sadourny's sublime angles, Philippe Bernat-Salles' pace and the delicious subtlety of Stephane Glas at inside centre.

And towering above them from five feet nothing was Thomas Castaignede, who bamboozled the 80,000 sell-out crowd every bit as comprehensively as the English defence and, in the process, added another fistful of noughts to his asking price in the marketplace. "My contract with Castres has two years left to run," he insisted, none of which is likely to prevent both Newcastle and Saracens offering the earth for his services.

"Our defensive discipline was the key to our victory and I think that the French rugby spirit is changing," said the bleach-blond stand-off from Mont-de-Marsan. "We are still an up and down team - we can beat anyone one week, then lose to Italy the next - but we are calmer when things go against us now and even more importantly, we go on to the field believing that we have the players to win.

"We don't think 'Oh, it's England, this will be difficult'. We know now that it is easier to beat them than our recent predecessors believed. This game is played in the head, you know."

And with it, too. The French may have cost themselves a deluge of points with unforced errors, but their strategic options were almost invariably spot on. Jean- Claude Skrela and Pierre Villepreux have vast potential at their fingertips and, frighteningly, the know-how to maximise it. We saw a great French side in the making on Saturday and it will be fascinating to watch them evolve.

England are not quite at the other end of the evolutionary scale, but their rugby is nowhere near as sophisticated. Too many forwards remain uncomfortable with ball in hand, too many decision-makers allow themselves to be flummoxed by the demands of the international stage.

The gloom of Saturday evening will hang over Woodward's charges for the rest of this week and much of next before they turn their attentions to the Welsh. George Orwell had it just about right, it seems. Down and Out in Paris and London.

FRANCE: J-L Sadourny (Colomiers); P Bernat-Salles (Pau), C Lamaison (Brive), S Glas (Bourgoin), C Dominici (Stade Francais); T Castaignede (Castres), P Carbonneau (Brive); C Califano (Toulouse), R Ibanez (Dax, capt), F Tournaire (Toulouse), O Brouzet (Begles-Bordeaux), F Pelous (Toulouse), P Benetton (Agen), T Lievremont (Perpignan), O Magne (Brive). Replacements: M Lievremont (Stade Francais) for Benetton, 15; T Cleda (Pau) for T Lievremont, 54.

ENGLAND: M Catt (Bath); D Rees (Sale), J Guscott (Bath), W Greenwood (Leicester), A Healey (Leicester); P Grayson (Northampton), K Bracken (Saracens); J Leonard (Harlequins), M Regan (Bath), D Garforth (Leicester), M Johnson (Leicester), G Archer (Newcastle), L Dallaglio (Wasps, capt), R Hill (Saracens), N Back (Leicester). Replacement: D West (Leicester) for Regan, 70.

Referee: D McHugh (Ireland).