Rugby Union: Five Nations - The draining of French spirit

Even the blond bombshell Castaignede finds the power of Dallaglio and Co suffocating
Click to follow
The Independent Online
WHEN THE main contribution by Thomas Castaignede, the most gifted player on the park, is some thumping tackles on the England second row, you know that this was not one of the classic games of rugby.

The mercurial bottle-blond Frenchman put the notches of Tim Rodber, Martin Johnson and Richard Hill on his belt during an eminently forgettable 80 minutes of forward ploughing.

It was just a shame none of his countrymen matched that spirit. France were dressed in the blue, red and white of their national colours, but played like a pale imitation of the great French teams of the past. The anticipated French backlash, when it came in the closing seconds through the game's sole try, was no more than a gentle slap across the cheek.

While the professionalism and assurance of England's victory is to be applauded, the overwhelming taste was of stale Beaujolais. Wales now stand between England and a Grand Slam but, devoid of French thrills and frills, the Five Nations' Championship has lost some of its sheen.

Though forced to make critical changes in the pack and on the wing, this was a desperately tepid French team, lacking confidence and conviction, caught neurotically between the instinct to create and a need to destroy. And doing neither with any force.

Before the start, they gathered by the entrance to watch the England team run on to the field as if already overawed by the task ahead of them. And nothing through an afternoon of unremitting greyness seemed to shake them out of their inferiority complex.

Though no one was advocating a return to the brutality of the early Nineties' encounters, one half wished for the ghost of Brian Moore to weave a little devilry into the forward battle.

The farewell theme tune as the teams headed off down the tunnel came from Dusty Springfield. The England management have not quite flicked the coaching manual back that far, but there were shades of the old "stick it up your jumper" ploy so effectively mastered by Dean Richards and Co during the Carling era. Push, shove, kick; the old numbers are the best. England put out the "men at work" sign and dug a big hole for the French.

The history books will record the first England victory over France for four years; more significantly, it will become known as the day "Wilko - pen" entered the lexicon of English rugby. Seven out of seven the 19- year- old kicked, from distances varying from the nine-iron to the five iron, but such was his precision, the Twickenham crowd actually bequeathed him the accolade of a few hearty jeers for the last of his septet.

By that time England had the game safely locked in the vaults and were chucking away the keys. None the less, the chaps at Twickers wanted a bit more frippery for their pounds 25, precious little in the way of entertainment having come their way from either side.

"I wouldn't have minded having a few conversions as well," Wilkinson said later. But, with a tournament kicking count of 15 out of 16, no one could complain about the ratio. The Rugby Football Union and the clubs will make peace before Wilkinson misses again.

In truth, this was not one of the young centre's better games even though his tackling was as solid as ever (an early hit on Emile Ntamack shook the French to their bootlaces) and his repertoire of passes included another flicked special akin to the sleight-of-hand pass which set up Matt Perry for a try in Dublin.

The rest of his performance matched the game, more workmanlike than inspired, too error-strewn for his own high standards. "The big thing was the win," he said.

The clash of the fly-halves, Catt v Castaignede, was equally muted. At times, the Frenchman seemed to be playing an entirely different game from the rest of his side. Too often for comfort, Mike Catt does the same. Not so much a curate's egg, more a Catt's egg of a performance, which included some raking long kicks and some disastrous decision-making.

None was more blatant than on the stroke of half-time when the England fly-half had half of Twickenham on his outside, yet elected to go for glory himself only to be closed down well short of the line.

Castaignede's little tricks also fell on stony ground. Only a true romantic could select a reverse pass to a prop forward as a way out of an impasse within his own 22. The prop forward duly dropped the ball. Another intricate piece of French inter- passing would have been highly impressive in front of the England posts, but was positively suicidal within sight of their own.

Only once did Castaignede manage to exploit the smallest of cracks in an otherwise immaculate England defence. An outside break in the closing minutes looked destined for glory when a flailing Catt clung on to his bootlaces and halted the charge. Castaignede rose to his knees, turned and pierced his opposite number with a gaze of Gallic intensity before helping Catt to his feet. France did score the only try of the match, way too late for consolation, but that too owed more to the freakish bounce of Philippe Carboneau's diagonal kick and a tic-tac tackle by Perry.

"We wanted it more than them," was the England hooker Richard Cockerill's succinct summary of the game. No one cared to argue with that. England are in good shape for the Grand Slam even though their supporters are reaching for the Mogadon.