In their retreat from Paris last Sunday England endured a six-hour train journey. Like a cheap bottle of French plonk, the Red Rose division do not travel well. At Fortress Twickenham they are the epitome of a Homer hero; in a foreign field lies the imprint of an Achilles heel.
This is a worrying pattern, particularly as Clive Woodward's long-term goal, next year's World Cup, takes place in Australia. As frustrating as it is to see slam after slam dunked during a seasonal lost weekend – three steps forward, one back – it is almost a minor irritation to Woodward compared to the equally seasonal sniping of former players.
If it isn't Rob Andrew it's Will Carling, and last week the one-time Grand Slam darling of English rugby and centre of controversy was laying into Woodward and his squad for being naïve and tactically inflexible. At Twickenham they are getting sick and tired of ex-alumni rubbishing the old-school blazer. As Andrew is involved in the Premiership they can attempt to restrain him, but Carling is a loose cannon.
"There's possibly some truth in the view that we didn't change tactics in the heat of the battle, but all sorts of factors contributed to the result," Kyran Bracken said last week. "We did change some things, but France were really on top of their game and kept smacking us backwards.
"I hope we will not go back to the Will Carling era. I remember playing in four internationals and we didn't score a solitary try. For some reason people want to criticise us when the chance arises. Carling is entitled to his view, but it would carry more weight if he was more consistent. I've never heard him praise the England team and management after a good performance. This sort of thing is almost spiteful. I would love to have seen his reaction when he was captain if past players lined up to criticise him."
It goes with the territory. What made England's defeat perplexing to many was the contrast following the six-try rout of Ireland. Bracken and Jonny Wilkinson had the freedom of Twickenham, but at the Stade de France they were almost obliterated by the magnificent back row of Olivier Magne, Imanol Harinordoquy and Serge Betsen. The latter used Wilkinson as a tackle bag, whatever the stand-off did. It was almost a union version of American football's blitz in which the quarterback is sacked.
"France did their homework," Bracken said. "They did a very good job on us. Their defence was particularly aggressive and Betsen hit Jonny whether he had the ball or not. Jonny's form made him a target and they stopped him playing. His game is in your face because he stands as close to the gain line as possible. This means he makes decisions very late, which is very hard to do when you're on the back foot and being shot at. You can't protect your stand-off, not unless he stands right back in the pocket, and that's not Jonny's style. It's a physical game and if you get hit you get hit, although there's a fine line between a well-timed tackle and a late one."
When, two weeks earlier, Ireland did a good job of marking Jason Robinson it opened up gaps for the other members of the England back line. One of Robinson's strengths is turning defence into attack, one of his weaknesses the near-certainty that he will try to do so. Rule one is not to kick it to him; rule two, if you do, make sure he is swamped. During their tour de force, the French ignored rule one and became the first side to profit from Robinson's unorthodoxy.
Their second try came from a harmless kick ahead by Damien Traille, and Robinson was not only collared but lost possession. It resulted in Harinordoquy crossing in the left corner. A few minutes later there was a similar scenario, but a last-ditch tackle by Mike Tindall on Pieter de Villiers prevented the extraordinary prop from scoring. The conversion of Robinson is one of the reasons for the sea-change in Woodward's philosophy.
It was only a couple of seasons ago that the England manager was declaring: "I don't give a monkey's how we win as long as we win." With Wilkinson getting bigger game by game and runners like Will Greenwood and Austin Healey back in the fold, England quickly developed a style that was not only successful but hugely entertaining. Robinson's deficiencies were exposed, but to renege on the laissez-faire approach would be tantamount to desertion. Last week, when the full-back took the last pass of the first half from Bracken and turned on the wizardry, many felt that at 17-7 England were well-placed for a second-half assault.
"The biggest thing about the Clive Woodward era is that he allows the players to express themselves," Bracken added. "It's heads-up rugby. At half-time we thought we were back in the hunt and the message was take control, apply pressure and keep the ball. The problem is that we didn't do that. We did not control the pace of the game and we lost the ball in contact. In the second half we gave it away on 10 occasions. Also our defence was the worst it has been, particularly around the guard area, the rucks and mauls. I've no idea why. It's very unusual."
The England back row of Richard Hill, Joe Worsley and Neil Back were rendered anonymous not only by their opposite numbers but by the revitalised performance of Fabien Galthié. His early break, stepping inside at a scrum, completely wrong-footed the defence and led to Gérald Merceron's try. "Once somebody's beaten the guard area you're in trouble," Bracken said.
Hill, Bracken's clubmate at Saracens, was equally mystified. "Most of us have played in internationals where we've come up short at the end but I can't remember us playing that badly that early. We should have played a more territorial game and we overcomplicated things at the wrong times and in the wrong areas. If you offload the ball without breaking the gain line you might get yourself out of trouble but it will drop someone else in it."
The career of Back, who had a hamstring niggle before the match and suffered a head injury during it, has never looked more vulnerable. Woodward was unfortunate that injury prevented Lewis Moody from being on the bench.
"We weren't tactically inept," Bracken said. "What was the score? It's not like we were beaten by 30 points. Things did not go quite right for us. We'll learn from it, but it doesn't mean we're going to change the way we play."Reuse content