As a coach, my starting point is always the same: a game of rugby is a winnable game of rugby. If the selection is right, the preparation good and the tactical blueprint both realistic and clearly communicated, there is no reason why a team should not prevail. England are in this situation now. Tonight's World Cup semi-final with France is a major challenge, far more complex in terms of planning that last week's quarter-final against Australia. Why? Because the French have no major weaknesses. There again, neither did the All Blacks – and look what happened to them. At the top level, there is no such thing as a match that cannot be won.
When I prepared England teams for games against Les Bleus, there was inevitably a heightened sense of danger. The French strengths pretty much mirrored our own – excellent scrum, high-class line-out and so on – but they always seemed to be armed with something extra. In that sense, I put them in the same category as New Zealand. We knew they had the players and the skills to hurt us across the field, and I found that whiff of peril inspiring.
The test for the coaching team was to come up with a means of stopping them playing, while ensuring we would be in a position to capitalise on the opportunities we created for ourselves. That is the test for Brian Ashton and his colleagues now. How do England put the brakes on the French, without playing stagnant rugby themselves?
I believe the coaches and senior players are in a good position to arrive at the right answer. After the heavy defeat by South Africa a month ago – and let's face facts, it was a really bad 80 minutes for the English game – I questioned what I perceived to be an absence of "teamship". I defined it as playing as a group, for each other, rather than as individuals; I highlighted the importance of a collective sense of urgency and intensity of purpose; I underlined the importance of basic emotional forces like yearning and desire; and I described it as the single most essential ingredient in winning a World Cup. None of those things were present that night in Paris. Last weekend, against the Australians in Marseilles, they were clearly evident.
The scrummaging was tremendous, the energy generated in and around the tackle area was first class. If I had a criticism, it centred on the line-out, where an important throw was lost at the very end of the game – an error that could easily have cost England their place in this tournament, and stripped the Webb Ellis Trophy from their hands. Generally speaking, though, the performance was an object lesson in applied ferocity.
So now what? England will have to step up another level. If that sounds harsh, so be it. If they are really serious about winning this match – and considering the prize on offer, why wouldn't they be? – Phil Vickery and his team will have to produce something above and beyond the rugby they played last week. Probably quite a big something. The dominance established by the tight-five forwards last week was exceptional, but we knew the Australians could be exposed in that area. France will not be exposed anything like as readily. The back row? The Martin Corry-Lewis Moody-Nick Easter combination did particularly well against the Wallabies, but again, France have better players, with more collective shape and balance.
Ultimately, this match will be won by the side that wants it most and mixes that desire with precision. England do not have a great record at the Stade de France, to say the least, but the last victory there, in 2000, is worth recalling with regard to this game. Despite having two men in the sin-bin – Simon Shaw, who is playing tonight, and Austin Healey both found themselves on the wrong side of the referee – the team mounted a magnificent goal-line stand to deny their hosts in a frantic finale. Jonny Wilkinson made one of the great tackles of his career to stop the dangerous Emile Ntamack dead in his tracks and set a tone for the match. I can see England needing more of that spirit this evening. I would love to see them find it.
Pack must call last waltz for French band
To stop the French in their own capital, you have to stop the band. Literally. If the likes of Yannick Jauzion, Cédric Heymans and Vincent Clerc start running England ragged in open field – something they are quite capable of doing given a split-second too much time and an inch of space – the musicians in the stands will pump up the volume, step up the rhythm and drag the crowd along with them. At moments like this, you know you're in strife.
French rugby is all about momentum. With it, they can be close to unstoppable; without it, they can disappear in a fog of frustration and start making schoolboy howlers. If England can prevent them getting quick ball, they will stay in the game. Encouragingly, this is precisely what they achieved against the Wallabies in the quarter-final. Australia crave third-phase and fourth-phase possession, but England nullified them by swamping the breakdowns and turning everything into a fight to the death. Of course, it will be more difficult tonight because of the added power and expertise of the French pack, but with England in the mood for a real scrap at long last, the contest will be a serious one.
The French know that in terms of possession, the England pack will have parity at least. For a time in the Nineties, this was just about enough to ensure an English victory. Now, though, the French defence is among the world's best, rather than one of the world's flakiest. Dave Ellis, the Yorkshireman who has been working in Paris for some years, has played his part in reshaping the structure, and with improved fitness and conditioning – not to mention a vastly improved attitude towards playing without the ball – they are difficult to break down.
Serge Betsen, the experienced flanker from Biarritz, will be a key defensive component, as ever. I am sure many people who saw last week's game against New Zealand in Cardiff are wondering how Betsen could possibly be fit to play, having been knocked cold in the early stages. There is no longer a mandatory three-week break for concussed players at the top level; instead, a regime of stringent neurological tests has been put in place for players suffering from severe blows to the head. I am assured that Betsen has passed those tests. Under the circumstances, I believe Bernard Laporte, the France coach, is right to select him.
England must play with great discipline and security, not least at the line-out. If they get it wrong there, they will find themselves on the painful end of a big driving game. If, however, they win a decent amount of clean possession and attack the short sides rather than keep ploughing into the underbelly of the French defence, I can see them forcing enough scoring opportunities to win.
Is Jonny missing Alred's magic touch?
Needless to say, Wilkinson will have to be on his best kicking form. He has struggled somewhat in recent weeks – a 62 per cent success rate is not like him at all – and this has led to questions about the standard of the Gilbert balls being used in the competition. However, I wonder whether he is missing the presence of Dave Alred, the kicking coach who worked with Jonny for around a decade, up to and including the World Cup victory in 2003.
I am not for a second questioning the effectiveness of Jon Callard, the current England kicking coach. I played and coached alongside Jon at Bath and have great respect for his abilities. Yet it is the case that Jonny swore by Dave's methods and forged an extremely close working relationship with him. The Rugby Football Union may have shot themselves in the foot by not making Dave available to Jonny for this tournament. Rob Andrew, the director of elite rugby at Twickenham, understands better than anyone how the two of them hit it off. For a start, he was coaching Jonny at Newcastle while Dave was working on the kicking side of things. What is more, Rob worked with Dave during his own playing days – indeed, he would not have been as good a kicker as he ultimately became without that specialist input. I hope I am wrong, but Dave's absence could prove costly.
Pumas starting to run out of puff
As far as tomorrow's second semi-final is concerned, I have my fears for Argentina. Along with Fiji, who played some wonderful stuff in losing to the Springboks last week, the Pumas have been the team of the tournament, but I wonder whether we have now seen the best of them. They are not the most handsomely equipped side in the world to play big match after big match, week after week, and I suspect they are encountering some fitness issues. Certainly, more of their players are strapping more and more tape and bandaging to themselves, just to get on the field.
I was more than a little bemused by South Africa's performance against the Fijians. In fact, their approach smacked of arrogance. We all knew how and where they would dominate the islanders, yet they spent most of the game strolling along before getting really stuck into them up front in the last 15 minutes.
Perhaps that quarter-final will turn out to be the Springboks' version of our last-eight game with Wales four years ago – by which I mean, the match that gave the team the kick in the pants they needed to go on to the final. I think we'll see a much more committed performance from South Africa tomorrow. One that will signal the end of the road for the magnificent South Americans.
Player to watch: Jean-Baptiste Elissalde (France, scrum-half)
Call him 'le petit general'. If you see a lot of Elissalde during tonight's game, it means the French are dominant and will almost certainly win the match. If he disappears, it will signify that the English back-rowers have him under lock and key. If the champions are to hold on to their trophy, they will need to achieve the latter.
Quite why the French did not choose the Toulouse scrum-half from the start of the competition, I can't for the life of me work out. Elissalde is everything a coach craves in the half-back position. He is hugely committed, exceptionally strong for a small man, tactically astute – I consider him one of the smartest players in the World Cup – and full of character. He is the heartbeat of the French side, the enabler. Like most players raised in the Toulouse system, he oozes class. Somewhere along the line, preferably sooner rather than later, he will have to be put firmly on his backside. If he's still pulling the strings after an hour, the holders will be in trouble.Reuse content