Rugby Union: 'We didn't fire out of the blocks'

Tony Wallace hears Clive Woodward pick as many holes in his side as the French
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The Independent Online
PARIS has been the hot air capital of Europe this week, with much of the warm stuff being provided by the English company brought in to thaw out the frozen pitch at the magnificent Stade de France. But it was France blowing hottest throughout a match which brought cold comfort to England coach Clive Woodward, who might have been obliged to contemplate defeat on the scale South Africa inflicted upon England at Twickenham last November. Or maybe even greater, if France had put away more of the many chances they created.

By the time England had warmed fully to their task, as France lost concentration in the third quarter, it was only a matter of time before it became a question of by how many France would win, not if they were going to. By the end, however, despite the closeness of the score France were white hot again as Stephane Glas rifled into the right corner, only to lose the ball in the act of scoring.

"We didn't fire out of the blocks, " said Woodward. By the second half we were getting it together, though we were rarely as quick as we should have been. And to some extent we were surprised just how fast this France side was.

"Apart from that, the France defence was very good and ours was nothing like as solid as it should have been. In the first period, our defence was not up to the standard you expect at international level."

Looked at in the context of Woodward's declared in bringing width, style and expansive ambition to England's game he acknowledged that defeat had been a setback. "The players are shaking their heads in disbelief," said Woodward. "They know they gave away too much 50-50 ball. When taking the ball into contact we were turned over far too often. Ultimately, the final score flattered us and we can have few complaints."

By contrast, France's coach Jean-Claude Skrela faced his critics with a warm Mistral breezing in his favour after the 52-10 hammering the Springboks gave them in the Autumn.

"To leave Parc des Princes after a big defeat to come to our new stadium with a crowd immediately behind us, and especially supporting Christophe Lamaison, was very gratifying." said Skrela. "They helped him forget Bordeaux and last week's European Cup Final defeat by Bath, which hit his confidence.

"In truth, we should have made some breaks earlier in the game and if we had this would have enabled us to win by a bigger score. But this team has so much potential, and will undoubtedly get better.

"What pleased me was how fast we were and how good our defence was. We remembered how, against New Zealand, England broke through the All-Blacks first line of defence. We paid particular attention to this and England were unable to break down France, who were brave and defended well.

"Even so we must keep our feet on the ground," continued the pragmatic Skrela. "Two years ago we beat England and then lost at Murrayfield. Now after defeat by the Springboks we feel we are on the road to recovery."

The new face of France as a European force is provided by their 24-year- old hooker from Dax, Raphael Ibanez, making only his third start in international rugby and who was generous and charitable in victory.

"England were clearly ambitious and wanted to win," said Ibanez. "After their game with New Zealand when England were so strong it was important for France to win.

"We went through a bad period in the second half when England improved their game, but in these moments, when you search for solidarity it is your team work which pulls you through. Ours is a team working for one another." Asked if he rated England now as the best side in Europe, Ibanez, a model of tact, declared: "I thought so before the match."

It seemed an exquisitely diplomatic response, but encapsulated a player's view of England's relative decline, in the shortest sentence imaginable.