Back-less back row prove the most glaring weakness

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The Independent Online

If England were going to have any chance of securing victory in the Stade de France last night, they first needed to win the battle of the forwards. As the final score suggests, they finished second in that particular department.

If England were going to have any chance of securing victory in the Stade de France last night, they first needed to win the battle of the forwards. As the final score suggests, they finished second in that particular department.

The first half, in particular, was hugely disappointing. It is a struggle to remember the last time an English pack played that poorly. Aside from one big tackle by Phil Vickery on Olivier Magne in the eighth minute, and a good trundle in the loose four minutes later, France's forwards were in almost total control for the opening 40 minutes. Their scrum was solid, their line-out impeccable and, most tellingly, their work around the fringes explosive.

England's forwards, in contrast, were made to look slow and indecisive. True, they were much improved in the second half, but that gutsy surge proved to be too little, too late. By then, the damage had been done.

Few had thought England would be able to recapture their form of last November, when they crushed les Tricolores in the driving rain of Sydney to qualify for the World Cup final. Equally, though, no one had imagined they would struggle quite as much as they did last night. Perhaps the biggest surprise was that Sir Clive Woodward's men looked so weak where they normally excel.

The last area where one would have thought England might experience difficulties was in the back row. Four months ago, the holy trinity of Neil Back, Richard Hill and Lawrence Dallaglio appeared untouchable. Last night, the two that remain - Hill and Dallaglio - looked old men.

Not so the French threesome of Serge Betsen, Magne and Imanol Harinordoquy. Betsen tackled throughout with the sort of ferocity that would make even Jonny Wilkinson wince, and Magne made countless breaks behind the England defence. Meanwhile, Harinordoquy, of whom many searching questions had been asked before kick-off, finished a close second to the young scrum-half, Dmitri Yachvili, for the man of the match award. His impressive 23rd-minute try, when he sprinted forward and finished with the aplomb of a winger, was no less than his efforts deserved.

While it would be too easy to blame Back's retirement, precipitated by Woodward's decision to "move on", for the drop in form, there can be no doubt that the back row are far less cohesive without the experienced Leicester man in their ranks. The simplest test is to ask whether, given the chance, Laporte would swap France's flankers or No 8 for their English counterparts. Not any more, he would not.

The frustration from England's point of view is that they came so close to making amends for their terrible first half. Indeed, how different this morning's headlines might have been if England had sneaked the win they threatened at the end of the game. The England forwards, for a start, might have been spared. "It feels strange," admitted Matt Dawson after the match, "looking at our forwards' second half performance and knowing that we lost."

Perhaps anxious to move on, Woodward said: "This Six Nations was always going to be hard after the World Cup, but I'm still very proud of the way we played." From the England manager's point of view, the plan must be to use the second-half display as the template for the future. "We'll build from this and look forward to the summer," he confirmed.

Having taken the Webb Ellis Cup so impressively just four months ago, England can be forgiven a dip in form. But they will not be granted many more.

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