Rugby Union / Five Nations' Championship: Andrew blooms in 'Garden of England': No frills and no tries against French but title hopes are alive and kicking for showdown with Wales

Click to follow
The Independent Online
France . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .14

England. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .18

LET US begin by being generous. England have been playing so poorly that no one much gave them a chance of winning yet again in Paris, so it is scarcely either logical or fair to complain at how, after all, they ended up by doing so.

It is an old line but as true as ever that at Parc des Princes of all the venues in the Five Nations' Championship the end justifies the means. If people think England, tryless and apparently friendless, play boring rugby, just ask the Welsh, Scots and Irish: they would gladly be bored to death if it meant a precious victory in Paris.

A measure of England's achievement is that none of the other home countries has won here for 19 years, whereas England have now done it four times in a row and have not lost to France in seven games since 1988. The gloom of defeat by Ireland having been dispelled, England are suddenly chasing the championship, which they will win if they beat the unbeaten Welsh by 16 points on 19 March. A fortnight ago you would hardly have believed it, but then neither would you have believed that, after losing to England, France need to draw in Scotland, where they have not won since 1978, to avoid the wooden spoon. After Saturday's match Pierre Berbizier, the exasperated French coach, looked like a man about to mount the scaffold.

Not so Geoff Cooke, whose departure as England manager after the Wales game will come at the moment of his own choosing. As Cooke made plain, he and his players care not a fig about the views of their many critics and, we may be certain, will continue to play in exactly the same measured and efficient but stubbornly unflamboyant style.

'The object of the game of rugby is to win by scoring more points than the opposition,' Cooke intoned. 'We'd love to score a bucketful of tries but unfortunately we have people tackling us.' In fact England have now gone five international matches without a try; the last time they went through an entire championship without one was in 1959.

On Saturday, they withstood an excruciating period of first-half French pressure with a rearguard action of astounding valour and discipline. They struggled at the scrummage but came on so strongly at the line-out that France won almost nothing after half-time. The big back row were superb, as was Rob Andrew with his kicking for goal and for position.

But that was more or less that.

Andrew was perfectly content to engage in a game of aerial tennis better suited to the Roland Garros stadium up the road rather than liberate the men outside him. Indeed, in this game all four wings were surplus to requirements and the notion that there is such a thing as attacking back play seems to have become more of a fond remembrance of times past than a present possibility.

Which brings us to the counter- point. Yes, England deserve our generous applause for stepping into the lions' den and turning the French into tame pussies. But at the same time, the morose rigour of their rugby wins no friends (as if they cared) and does nothing to influence anyone that rugby can be a thing of pleasure and fancy as well as of grim reality.

On the face of it, Berbizier wishes his team would play like England, though one can imagine the Gallic opprobrium that would be heaped on him if they did. 'We wanted to complicate the game too much against a team which bases itself on a simple game,' he said.

Berbizier had no compunction about blaming his half-backs, Alain Penaud and Fabien Galthie, for the general strategic shambles and also the specific failure to exploit a series of try-scoring opportunities during the first-half siege. 'We are incapable of working out a strategy and putting it into effect on the field,' he grumbled, adding that there was 'no comparison' between Penaud and Galthie on the one hand and Andrew and Dewi Morris on the other.

The failure just might be the fault of the coach as well as his players, though how much influence a coach has on an international team is a philosophical moot point which presumably depends on the coach. For example, when Dick Best coached Harlequins they were celebrated for the bravura of their play. Now he coaches England, who are not.

Cooke calls the constant try talk 'always irrelevant', but the stark fact is that not only have they not scored a try this season, on Saturday they never looked like scoring one other than during the fleeting

moments before Ian Hunter, leading a break out of deep defence, decided to stop in his tracks. So with creativity consciously eschewed, England could not help but rely on Andrew to accumulate their points. The plan was straightforward and perfectly executed: get down there, get three points and start again. Whereas England did not concede a single penalty during the 25 minutes they were encamped in their own territory, they scored more or less every time they made it into French territory.

You could not have imagined Andrew had not been a first-up Test kicker for five years as he was landing three out of four penalties (including two deep in injury time) to give England a nine-point half-time lead and then dropping a goal before adding another two penalties. The contrasting misfortune of the once- infallible Thierry Lacroix, who had almost as bleak a day with the boot as in the defeat by Wales, sufficed to ensure England's victory.

Lacroix finished with three penalties, missed two fairly easy ones and never got to take the conversion of Abdel Benazzi's blind-side try because the ball fell over as he ran up and he did not react smartly enough to pick it up and try a drop-shot. It was that sort of day, for Lacroix and for France. Parc des Princes, as one Parisian paper put it yesterday, has become the Garden of England.

France: Try Benazzi; Penalties Lacroix 3. England: Penalties Andrew 5; Drop goal Andrew.

FRANCE: J-L Sadourny (Colomiers); P Saint-Andre (Montferrand), P Sella (Agen), T Lacroix (Dax), W Techoueyres (Bordeaux Universite Club); A Penaud (Brive), F Galthie (Colomiers); L Benezech (Racing Club), J-M Gonzales (Bayonne), P Gallart (Beziers), O Merle (Grenoble), O Roumat (Dax, capt), A Benazzi, P Benetton (Agen), L Cabannes (Racing Club).

ENGLAND: D Pears (Harlequins); I Hunter (Northampton), W Carling (Harlequins, capt), P de Glanville (Bath), R Underwood (Leicester); R

Andrew (Wasps), D Morris (Orrell); J Leonard, B Moore (Harlequins), V Ubogu (Bath), M Johnson (Leicester), N Redman (Bath), T Rodber (Northampton), S Ojomoh, B Clarke (Bath).

Referee: S Hilditch (Ireland).

----------------------------------------------------------------- FIVE NATIONS' STANDINGS ----------------------------------------------------------------- P W D L F A Pts Wales 3 3 0 0 70 36 6 England 3 2 0 1 45 41 4 Ireland 4 1 1 2 49 70 3 France 3 1 0 2 64 57 2 Scotland 3 0 1 2 26 50 1 ----------------------------------------------------------------- Remaining fixtures: 19 March England v Wales; Scotland v France -----------------------------------------------------------------

(Photograph and statistics omitted)