RUGBY UNION: Vickery holds key as heavyweight forwards fire up front-row furnace

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ATTITUDE, ENTHUSIASM, creativity, freshness - these, according to the England head coach Andy Robinson, were just a few of the qualities conspicuous by their absence during his side's muddle-headed display against Wales in Cardiff a week ago. A similarly uninspired performance in tomorrow's Six Nations meeting with France at Twickenham will strip another few layers from the world champions' ragged reputation, for Tricolore teams are never more enthusiastic or attitude-fuelled than when they pick up the scent of a red rose vintage gone to the bad.

The facts are as plain as the squashed nose on Robinson's beaten-up face: seven defeats in 10 matches since the championship victory over Scotland at Murrayfield this time last year. In the intervening 12 months, the Scots have endured an outbreak of spontaneous combustion off the field while England have imploded on it. Of the two, Scotland are probably the happier with their present lot, albeit marginally. How the mighty are fallen.

This cross-Channel spat between the two acknowledged superpowers of European rugby - their 85th meeting since the legendary likes of Adrian Stoop and James Peters, the first black player to represent England, put nine tries past les Bleus at Parc des Princes in 1906 - is infinitely more important to the home side, for they are the ones up a gum tree.

France are without a whole fistful of brilliant players for one reason or another: Nicolas Brusque, Aurelien Rougerie, Yannick Jauzion, Jean- Baptiste Elissalde, Pieter de Villiers, Olivier Magne and Imanol Harinordoquy are nowhere to be seen. England may be without Jonny Wilkinson, but they are far closer to full strength than their opponents and badly need the succour of victory.

Contrary to general expectation, Robinson has appeared at ease this week; indeed, he even cracked a joke following his team's training run with a Royal Navy XV, to the effect that the session had taught him "the best way of putting the subs on". Do not be fooled. When the coach smiles, someone somewhere tends to pay a heavy price. His thoughts on the cock- up at the Millennium Stadium were deadly serious - "Last Saturday's performance went against a lot of what I'm about and what I want England rugby to be" - and those sentiments have been ringing in the ears of his players since they recrossed the Severn Bridge last Sunday.

Robinson is seeking a 20 per cent improvement across the board tomorrow, which may just about be enough, especially if the French turn up in one of their "so-what" moods. There is not much wrong with the second-row pairing of Danny Grewcock and Ben Kay, assuming the former discovers some Jekyll to go with his Hyde, and the reconstituted loose trio of Joe Worsley, Lewis Moody and Martin Corry should find ways of living with Serge Betsen, Sebastien Chabal and Julien Bonnaire, assuming the astonishing Betsen is a notch down after his recent injury problems. There is a more solid look about the back line too, thanks to the belated introduction of Olly Barkley at inside-centre.

But if England find themselves on the wrong end of a pasting at scrum- time, their performance from four to 15 will have to be a whole lot better than 20 per cent.

"We know where the major battleground will be," Robinson said. "It will be at the set-piece. This is a huge challenge for us, for they've picked a front row to attack us at the scrummage."

And it is in precisely this area that England are weaker than they were in Cardiff, where they were anchored by the formidable Julian White of Leicester. The fact that White is now suffering from neck problems has forced the one change of personnel Robinson could have done without, given the threat posed by Sylvain Marconnet, Sebastien Bruno and Nicolas Mas.

On the face of it, Phil Vickery is nobody's fool. He was the first-choice tight head on the Lions' tour of Australia in 2001 and his contribution to England's victory in the World Cup two years later was far from insignificant. But serious injuries to neck and back have taken their toll and he has yet to provide even a smidgen of evidence that he is anywhere near the player he was before his last bout of surgery a little under a year ago.

He is up against a world-class operator in Marconnet, whom many consider to be the outstanding loose head in the game, and Robinson said: "It's certainly an opportunity to Phil to show what he has, and I know he sees it that way."

If Vickery can interest the Frenchman sufficiently to prevent him galloping around Twickenham like a heavyweight thoroughbred with the wind in his tail, it will help England's cause no end. If, on the other hand, Marconnet is left to his own devices, it will be a long day at the office.

There is little doubt that England are down in the foothills, struggling to plot a route towards the high peaks they conquered under Sir Clive Woodward, and under the circumstances this is a moment for the construction of a new base camp rather than an attempt on the great summits of the international game. The Twickenham crowd, so accustomed to life at high altitude, should get used to the air at sea level for a while. It will probably do them good.

England chase Farrell, page 62


Kick-off 3.0pm tomorrow (Live BBC1)


J Robinson (Sale, capt) 15 P Elhorga (Agen)

M Cueto (Sale) 14 J Marlu (Biarritz)

J Noon (Newcastle) 13 D Traille (Biarritz)

O Barkley (Bath) 12 B Liebenberg (Stade Francais)

J Lewsey (Wasps) 11 C Dominici (Stade Francais)

C Hodgson (Sale) 10 Y Delaigue (Castres)

H Ellis (Leicester) 9 D Yachvili (Biarritz)

G Rowntree (Leicester) 1 S Marconnet (Stade Francais)

S Thompson (Northampton) 2 S Bruno (Sale)

P Vickery (Gloucester) 3 N Mas (Perpignan)

D Grewcock (Bath) 4 F Pelous (Toulouse, capt)

B Kay (Leicester) 5 J Thion (Biarritz)

J Worsley (Wasps) 6 S Betsen (Biarritz)

L Moody (Leicester) 7 S Chabal (Sale)

M Corry (Leicester) 8 J Bonnaire (Bourgoin)

Referee: P O'Brien (New Zealand)

Replacements: 16 A Titterrell (Sale), 17 A Sheridan (Sale), 18 S Borthwick (Bath), 19 A Hazell (Gloucester), 20 M Dawson (Wasps), 21 H Paul (Gloucester), 22 B Cohen (Northampton).

Replacements: 16 W Servat (Toulouse), 17 O Milloud (Bourgoin), 18 G Lamboley (Toulouse), 19 Y Nyanga (Beziers), 20 P Mignoni (Clermont Auvergne), 21 F Michalak (Toulouse), 22 J-P Grandclaude (Perpignan).