Rugby Union: Hunter homes in as England touch wood: Five Nations' Championship / French fortunes blown in the wind after Saint-Andre enjoys high life while Scots are given green light

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The Independent Online
England. . .16 France. . . 15

IF Will Carling really believes there is no such thing as luck in Test rugby, then perhaps he ought to believe in divine providence. There again, perhaps not. 'I don't think you can ever say a win at international level is lucky,' the captain insisted after the French had been beaten.

'We did enough to win the game,' Carling added. 'Not a lot more, but enough.' And thereby hung the tale of a windswept encounter (not, praise be, a contretemps) in which English ascendancy, such as it was, rested almost exclusively on those indefinable qualities of guts and character rather than pure skill.

After the many pre-match discourtesies, everyone behaved himself impeccably, even if the tension that had been generated gave the match a palpable sense of occasion. A performance of untypical good sense and tactical sagacity under Jean-Francois Tordo's impressive leadership was enough to restore French rugby's credibility. And that was as significant as victory itself would have been.

Instead, Carling's England successfully set out towards a triple Grand Slam. But they are having trouble - inordinate trouble - fashioning tries of their own as they did when tries, points and records were being amassed last season. Outside intervention is having to do it for them.

Against the Springboks this was provided by a laughably inadequate South African defence whenever Rob Andrew put the ball in the air. Against France it was England who were fragile in precisely this way, whereas French defences were impenetrable; this time it was the rebound into Ian Hunter's hands of a Jon Webb penalty that gave England victory.

By contrast, the drop-shot by Jean-Baptiste Lafond which would probably have won it for France with 13 minutes left bounced agonisingly into white- shirted arms off the crossbar. Who, then, can possibly say England were not lucky? The relieved Captain Carling.

All of which is not meant as carping. Whether or not this is a great team, great teams develop the cliched knack of winning whatever the quality of their performance. This England side have developed an inner strength that sees them through the darkest hours - and much of this hour and 20 minutes at Twickenham was pretty dark, literally and metaphorically.

England are good enough to make their own luck and, as they already did against South Africa, ride it hard. Geoff Cooke, the manager, put it in better perspective than his captain had: 'We are in a situation where, because we've had a run of success, we are winning games like that.

'Things go for you a bit more when there's a lot of comfidence in the side and you keep plugging away and don't get too rattled. We are on a winning roll, and when it's tight like that you're just relieved to come away with a one-point margin. All the players know it was not an outstanding performance.'

There is nothing unfamiliar about this and the evidence of recent times indicates that the three nations still to be played, the next being Wales in Cardiff on 6 February, had better start worrying now that England have got this performance out of their system, especially as it came against such a vastly improved French team. In fact, in each of the past five championships England have made an uncertain beginning.

Even in their two Grand Slam seasons they emerged from victories in Scotland and Wales without great credit. But it is reasonable to assume that, however fortunate they may have been in achieving it, England have already seen off the best that the Five Nations can throw at them.

Moreover, they are unlikely to have to play in such capricious conditions again, nor to commit as many blunders. 'We made more errors in one game than we would normally expect to be able to afford in a season and win games at this sort of level,' Cooke said. In other words, England got away with it and might not another time.

No wonder he said that he and his players were 'hardly ecstatic' - even if the injured veteran Wade Dooley, confined to the West Stand after dropping out on Friday with a thigh strain, was telling television viewers at about the same time that in the dressing- room 'everyone is ecstatic'.

One or two might have been excused their ecstasy. Ben Clarke, for instance, sometimes seemed the only man capable of injecting pace into England's hesitant attempts at running attacks - and he is a No 8, for heaven's sake. Martin Johnson, Dooley's late replacement, rallied superbly after an understandably problematic international induction.

But, uncomfortably for England, France did most things better. Both sides decided that the wind meant their outside-halves had to kick the leather off the ball and, though Didier Camberabero did not always do it well, he did it consistently better than Andrew. On a nightmare day for full-backs, the eccentric Lafond was markedly superior to the usually dependable Webb.

Specifically and obviously, Cooke instanced England's inability to deal with French kicks that swirled about in the venomous wind. Dropsy is catching and after Andrew had dropped one early ball Webb spilled another and then another, which fell straight to Philippe Saint-Andre for the first try.

This was bad enough, but when Camberabero hoisted the ball behind the England posts neither Webb nor any other Englishman leapt for it, which effectively gave the dynamic Saint-Andre a free ball. If Camberabero had converted this second try, hindsight suggests England's cause may have been hopeless - with the game's course less than a quarter run.

Even during their years of supremacy, England have not been renowned for extricating themselves from tight spots but Webb's first two penalties, one before each of the French tries, kept England in contact and when Hunter followed up another Webb kick his vain hope turned into delirious expectation, not only because of a fortuitous bounce but because of the statuesque French response to it.

Webb, atoning for his earlier calamities, converted and kicked a second-half penalty followed by one from Camberabero which reduced the margin to a single, excruciating point. That was how it remained for the final 21 minutes. 'We were quite pleased with the way the boys hung in there and stuck at it,' Dick Best, the England coach, said. Quite pleased? No one else, none of the other home unions at any rate, would have managed it.

England: Try Hunter; Conversion Webb; Penalties Webb 3. France: Tries Saint-Andre 2; Conversion Camberabero; Penalty Camberabero.

ENGLAND: J Webb (Bath); I Hunter (Northampton), J Guscott (Bath), W Carling (Harlequins, capt), R Underwood (Leicester); R Andrew (Wasps), D Morris (Orrell); J Leonard, B Moore (Harlequins), J Probyn (Wasps), M Johnson (Leicester), M Bayfield (Northampton), M Teague (Moseley), B Clarke (Bath), P Winterbottom (Harlequins).

FRANCE: J-B Lafond (Begles); P Saint-Andre (Montferrand), P Sella (Agen), T Lacroix (Dax), P Hontas (Biarritz); D Camberabero (Beziers), A Hueber (Toulon); L Armary (Lourdes), J-F Tordo (Nice, capt), L Seigne (Merignac), A Benazzi (Agen), O Roumat (Dax), P Benetton (Agen), M Cecillon (Bourgoin), L Cabannes (Racing Club). Replacements: F Mesnel (Racing Club) for Sella, 32; S Ougier (Toulouse) for Lacroix, 51.

Referee: J Fleming (Scotland)

(Photograph omitted)

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