After the bump, prepare for the grind

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The Independent Online

There are few dishes more indigestible than humble pie. Those of us who not only wrote off the Italians' chances of scavenging one measly point from their inaugural Six Nations campaign, but wrote them out of the championship altogether, have had an uncomfortable week. A few of us, even more recklessly, proposed Wales as potential champions and prematurely enfeebled England by suggesting that their players were fatigued to the point of breakdown.

There are few dishes more indigestible than humble pie. Those of us who not only wrote off the Italians' chances of scavenging one measly point from their inaugural Six Nations campaign, but wrote them out of the championship altogether, have had an uncomfortable week. A few of us, even more recklessly, proposed Wales as potential champions and prematurely enfeebled England by suggesting that their players were fatigued to the point of breakdown.

Ah well, tomorrow, or rather next Saturday, is another day. There is still time, but the first weekend of competition has unalterably established Italy in their new home, no matter what misfortunes may befall them in the weeks ahead. That is good for Italian rugby and for the championship. They did not look at all out of place in the top drawer, which is more than can be said of theiropponents.

Surprising as the results were last week, however, few conclusions can be drawn from them. If England were every bit as good as Ireland were bad, the question of whether it was England's brilliance or Ireland's wretch-edness which had the greater influence remains unanswered.

Past experience tells us that it is more likely to be the latter. After all, weren't England dazzlingly inventive in their World Cup slaughter of the Italians? On that occasion they displayed the same heady mix of composure, ruthlessness and enterprise against opponents who were manifestly not up to it.

Austin Healey, as I recall, was every bit as lively on that day as he was against Ireland last week, producing a series of electrifying breaks, cheeky chips and appearing in about five different positions at once. Clive Woodward's comments immediately after that match could well have been echoed last week. "Let's not get too carried away," he said. "This was a testing game for England. The roof was waiting to fall in on us if it had not gone well. The boys coped with that."

It is certainly true that if England had lost to Italy the entire house would have caved in on Woodward. Three weeks later England's World Cup was over after they had been outwitted and outplayed by a much better side, South Africa, at Stade de France, the ground where they will be playing next Saturday.

Unquestionably, France are an altogether different proposition to Ireland. Indeed, judged by their performance in Cardiff last week, they are infinitely better equipped side than any of us had imagined. When was the last time that the French displayed such iron discipline, especially away from home, and restricted their opponents to a miserly penalty goal? Of all the statistics from the first series of matches this was the most remarkable. What is certain is that England will have neither the time nor the space they were so generously given by Ireland. The success England enjoyed in changing the angles of their running, the variety they produced in their passing and their almost obsessive desire to put their runners into space depended to a large extent on the co-operation of their opponents, and Ireland turned out to be hugely accommodating.

From what we saw last week it appears that the French are turned on every bit as much by violent defence as they are by vicious attack. Against that, France can expect greater resistance from England's forwards than they found against the Welsh eight in Cardiff. This is, admittedly, one of the biggest French packs of all time and when things are going for them they are brutally effective.

But the most alarming signal for those who have to face up to France is their ability to adapt to changing circumstances. Of course, with players such as Thomas Castaignÿde, Emile Ntamack and Christophe Dominici, they can run the hind legs off a cheetah. But as they proved in Cardiff when the game was still a contest, they have the patience and the mental and physical strength to slow down and, more to the point, grind down their opponents.

Christophe Lamaison, whose remorselessly accurate kicking stifled the life out of Wales, is the key. England must somehow get to him. They will have noted that defence is not his strongest suit.

There were few other encouraging signs. France began nervously and Wales muffed a couple of good chances early on which, had they been taken, might have altered the course of the game. In their Twickenham mood, England would surely not have declined such inviting opportunities. Despite their gargantuan size and tonnage, the French scrummage was not too comfortable. Like some misshapen dinosaur whose body has massively outgrown its head, the French scrum suffered from a serious imbalance and as a result was not always able to channel its strength into the required area. The new scrummage law clearly played its part in unsettling the French monster, but not much else did.

So lame and tame was the Irish challenge that England's loose forwards were given the time and space to roam as they please. It is unthinkable that they will be afforded the same opportunities in Paris on Saturday, not least because France have, in Olivier Magne, the finest loose forward in captivity anywhere in the world. England's throwing to the line-out, where the French have an armed battery of jumpers, will also have to be spot-on. But France, like England, were untested last week; whether through their own efforts or as the result of the incompetence of their opponents is, as in theEngland-Ireland encounter, unclear.

If I was horribly out of sorts with my prognosis on the Italian game, and I demand a little more time before final judgement is made, I have at least been consistent in my view that the only place for Mike Catt on an international field is in the centre. It was pleasing to see him come good after so many false starts.

Even more important than hisrunning on Saturday will be the weight and placement of his kicking on England's manoeuvres from left to right. Castaignÿde is, like Catt, an instinctive player unaccustomed to the restrictions and positional demands placed on him at full-back. France under pressure could be a very different side, but so, alas, could England.

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