Rugby Union: French lesson in high adventure

France 24 England 17 Tries: Bernat-Salles, Dominici Try: Back Pens: Lamaison 2 Pen: Grayson 4 Con: Lamaison Drop: Castaignede, Sadourny
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The Independent Online
THERE may have been seven points between these sides on the scoreboard, but in strategy, skill and speed the distance was a country mile. England's pre-match manifesto was infinitely clearer than their game-plan yesterday and after this performance both will have to be thoroughly overhauled and revised. Few French lessons have been harder to take than this.

England came to Paris with the genuine belief that they could out-pass, out-run and out-think their opponents. So, if we were to believe their coaches, did the French. In the pre-match build-up, they were telling all who were prepared to listen that England were simply the best and that merely to survive would be an achievement. They had, by their own calculations, been 50 tackles short of a half- decent performance against the Springboks and anything similar against England would mean annihilation.

However many tackles the French put in yesterday in the spanking new Stade de France, it was only half as many as England, and the bleak reality is that France could have doubled their score comfortably. Apart from missing three or four clear-cut scoring opportunities, they twice crossed England's line only to be thwarted by the eagle eye of the referee and by the capricious bounce of the ball.

That England came so close and were within a score of winning the match until Jean Luc Sadourny's drop-goal in the last minute of ordinary time, was due to the perennial French problem of indiscipline and to England's half-time decision to abandon their high-falutin ideas of bold adventure. They simply do not have the players to do it, with the possible exception of Jeremy Guscott who in the fading seconds flashed through the tiniest of openings to lift England's spirits but the attack fizzled out and with it England's last hope of saving the game.

Set against the sustained speed and skill of the French attacks, Guscott's effort served only to highlight the inadequacy of his colleagues. They had no master tactician of the impudence and inventiveness of Thomas Castaignede, whose bleached blond hair was the only discordant feature on this otherwise flawless rugby machine. He orchestrated the French attacks with elegance, composure and vision. He was even heroic in defence and when it comes to playing a game close to the cannon's mouth, he gave Paul Grayson, his opposite number, a classic demonstration of how it should be done.

The focus of the game may have changed radically in the past couple of years but not the theory behind it. There can be no building without bricks and yesterday the French foundations were much more solid than England's. The English scrummage was given a torrid time and twice France scored as a result of pressure they applied through the scrummage.

Not only that, but Christian Califano, having flayed the English front row, had enough excess energy to sprint through on a couple of breaks which would have graced any three-quarter. Perhaps as a result of their problems further forward, England's back row never functioned so effectively as they had done against the All Blacks. This, however, was due more to the balance being wrong in the first place. It is one thing to get first to the loose ball, it is another to have the power to profit from it. Time and again, the French forwards, with bulk to match their speed, made significant dents from which their close supporting runners made yet more ground. England's driving was ponderous and predictable by comparison. It was best summed up by their final frantic efforts to break through for the try and conversion which would level the score but was so unproductive that they ended up behind their own line, 50 yards from where they had started.

In contrast to the careless rapture and thrilling adventure of the French, England's try was prosaic, scored from a line-out drive to the line by Neil Back. Grayson, who kicked four fine penalties and kept his forwards moving upfield with a series of long kicks, was unable to convert Back's try and, more crucially, was also denied the opportunity of kicking more points by a number of rash decisions to take quick penalties. This was blatantly the wrong thing to do with half-time fast approaching and England, having been run ragged, still within touching distance. Had England kicked the simplest of penalties at this point they would at least have completed the half with more than they deserved which might in turn have started the process of eroding French confidence.

As it was the French lost their shape after Castaignede's drop-goal and Back's try, and when Grayson kicked his third penalty the gap on the scoreboard narrowed to just four points. But the distance in class remained unbridgeable. Christophe Lamaison's second penalty and Sadourny's drop-goal kept them ahead.

The French tries, both scored in the first half, were imaginatively created and executed with deadly timing and speed. Encamped in their own half, the French drove relentlessly upfield, finding more space with every forward lunge. Thomas Lievremont broke clear and from his pass Philippe Benetton delivered an exquisitely floated ball to Philippe Bernat-Salles who scored. Later he was just one decent pass away from his second try but, alas, Olivier Brouzet's passing was not of the same calibre and the chance went astray.

Before that, however, Christophe Dominici on the left-wing had scored France's second. Castaignede, Lamaison and Sadourny setting him up and Mike Catt and Richard Hill letting him off with fragile tackling.

The bald statistics make depressing reading. England have now gone seven games without a victory, the longest winless sequence since the early Seventies. Inevitably, there will be questions asked about England's tactics. The questions are the easy part. The answers, however, may be a while in coming.

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