Rugby Union: France unable to cope with the bulldozer effect
Tuesday 23 March 1999
As things turned out, the bulldozer crushed them more or less from the beginning; while the French performance was at least three courses short of a four-course lunch.
Admittedly, luck did not go entirely their way. Indeed, I began by thinking that Colin Hawke, the New Zealand referee, was being over-severe with them. But, when Hawke had to go off injured at the end of the first half, to be replaced by Jim Fleming of Scotland, the latter proved to be equally if not more exigent, awarding England four penalties, all kicked by Jonny Wilkinson, to Hawke's three, at which Wilkinson had been equally successful.
The French have never been candidates for canonisation, particularly in their front five. On this occasion, however, the penalties were awarded for what I should call largely technical offences, brought about more by carelessness or foolishness than by evil intent. If a forward cannot rest a hand on the ground while trying to secure the ball without risking a penalty, the game has become absurd.
Certainly, England deserved the win. But I cannot believe that the XV who took the field initially on Saturday, even allowing for those unavailable through injury, were the best France could muster. Philippe Bernat-Salles, for instance, would almost certainly have scored the try which Xavier Garbajosa just missed through Bernat-Salles' fractionally greater pace.
The problems of Clive Woodward, the England coach, are fewer than those of Jean-Claude Skrela and Pierre Villepreux on the French side. But they are not quite yet the problems of success. It did not require more than a degree of modest competence on the part of the English backs to increase the England score by between five and 21 points, depending on how many tries were scored and converted.
For the Welsh match, I should like to see Woodward retain the now-maligned Jeremy Guscott (still a better centre at 33 than his rivals are or were at 23), introduce another Sale player, Barrie-Jon Mather, inside him; and at last shift Wilkinson to outside-half. My guess, however, is that he will play safe and bring in Tony Underwood alone for the injured David Rees.
Who would have thought that Scotland, 50-1 at the start of the Five Nations, would still be in with a chance of winning it? If they beat France in Paris, while Wales beat England a day later at Wembley on 11 April, Scotland and England will each have won three matches. The outcome of the championship will depend on points difference, as it has done since 1993. England have a margin in hand of 26 points, Scotland of 27. Even if Scotland (undoubtedly the team of the season) fall to France, England will still be coming to Wembley in search of the Grand Slam.
Graham Henry, the Welsh coach, now has a settled side. It will be surprising if he makes any changes from those who put up 60 points against Italy.
My own instinct, I must confess, would be to bring in David Young at tight head and have John Davies among the substitutes. This would be tough on Ben Evans, I know, but against England I should go for as much experience as I could gather.
Moreover, one of the most important changes to the game, so far neither fully exploited nor adequately analysed, is the allowing of tactical substitutions. Immensely strong practitioners such as Young and Davies, who are nevertheless getting on a bit and running out of puff, can be put on the field for 70, 60 or even 40 minutes.
By the same reasoning, I hope Henry picks an entire reserve front row, as he did against France but not against Italy, and also comes up with an adequate kicking substitute for Neil Jenkins, should that old campaigner have to go off injured.
I feel a faint sense of paternity about the present Welsh side because I urged Henry to do what he has done: acquire a decent loose-head prop, who appears in the form of Peter Rogers, and harness the size and energy of the Quinnell brothers. They, together with the other five, should certainly give the England eight at Wembley a harder time than they received from the French at Twickenham.
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