Brian Ashton generally prefers to make his own tactical calculations ahead of a major England match, but he was not in the least put out yesterday when, on entering the team room in one of the swankier suburbs of the French capital, he discovered that some comedian had decided to give him a helping hand. "Play the second half first and the first half second," said the words on the flipchart. "Whoever wrote that," remarked the coach, "has it just about right."
In their opening Six Nations match against Wales three weeks ago, Ashton's side reached the interval 16-6 up before inventing a whole new way of losing in the course of a chaotic final quarter. Against Italy eight days later, they turned round with a 20-6 advantage before fading so badly that the Azzurri finished within five points of a historic groundbreaking victory. England's world may start with a bang, but it ends with the most pathetic of whimpers.
While it is nonsense to suggest that they might be better off scoring less heavily in the opening exchanges, the coach is not wholly dismissive of the notion that last year's beaten World Cup finalists are vulnerable to false senses of security. "It may well be that those substantial half-time leads have been counter-productive in terms of the team's attitude towards the second 40 minutes," he said. "I'm hardly going to tell the players to score less quickly, but in the rather unlikely event of us ending the first half with a big lead over the French, I hope recent experiences will have reminded people of the processes they have to go through to ensure it isn't frittered away."
Few Test-class players have been known to confess to the deadly sporting sin of complacency, but there is little doubt that in the first two rounds of this tournament, self-satisfaction has played its part in undermining English efforts. The captain, Phil Vickery, who played in the first match before missing the fixture in Rome through a combination of illness and injury, certainly suspects that this is the case – hence his decision to tell a few home truths earlier this week.
"Peer pressure is an important part of any successful team," said Ashton, who agreed wholeheartedly with every syllable uttered by an ultra-critical Vickery. "It was fantastic to hear a captain stand up in public and say what he did about players taking responsibility for their performances. We've spoken a lot over the last few weeks about moving in a different direction and we really need to see some signs of that now, in this match.
"We have to be more ruthless in applying ourselves to the task of taking our game forward. In the last Six Nations, we beat the French at Twickenham with some pretty exciting rugby. During the World Cup, we turned away from that because of the particular circumstances, but if you ask me whether I'm happy that we haven't been playing as we played a year ago, I'd have to say I'm not."
France may top the table after their adventurous victories over Scotland and Ireland, but England are handily placed to record a first Six Nations victory here in eight years. The home side have immature players in the pressure-point positions of No 8, scrum-half and outside-half – not since the mid-1950s have they played a championship game with such a dearth of experience in these crucial roles – and they are not exactly brimming with goal-kicking talent either. François Trinh-Duc, their young stand-off, is no one's idea of a Jonny Wilkinson.
By the same yardstick, Wilkinson is no Trinh-Duc. The man who kicked France out of the 2003 World Cup at the semi-final stage and then gave them a second helping of misery last autumn is still an odds-on bet to nail the penalties and drop goals that really matter, but there is a suspicion the "new rugby" as pioneered by the Tricolores since the turn of the year is passing him by. If Ashton had a pocket big enough to hold Danny Cipriani, the brilliant young Wasps outside-half would be burning a hole in it. Will the pretender to the throne get a run at some stage tonight? Quite possibly. Will he play well enough to hold his place for the next fixture? Now, there's a question.
Marc Lièvremont, the new Tricolore coach, could lose this match narrowly and still be lauded from one end of France to the other, just so long as his young players can make their mark, and his spectacular back-three combination of Cédric Heymans, Aurélien Rougerie and Vincent Clerc perform a trick or two in open field. Ashton, on the other hand, could win it narrowly and find himself being slaughtered by those who yearn to see England do something more than prevail through their strength at scrum and line-out. It's a funny old world, to be sure.
lOlly Barkley, who might have been playing in tonight's match but for the distraction of an impending court case, yesterday confirmed his decision to leave Bath for Gloucester, with whom he has agreed a two-year deal. One of England's best backs at the World Cup, the 26-year-old midfielder joins another highly influential player, the lock Steve Borthwick, in leaving the Recreation Ground at the end of the campaign. His departure is a savage blow for Bath. Steve Meehan, their coach, said he was "surprised" at Barkley's decision to call time on his six-year career with the club. Simon Halliday, who joined the board as a director earlier this season, described it as "a setback". Taken together with Borthwick's move to Saracens, it is much more than that. Barkley is awaiting a date for his trial on a charge of assault, which he denies. Under the circumstances, it would have been better had Bath's chief executive, Bob Calleja, not reacted to yesterday's news by describing Barkley as "a lovable rogue".
Remaining Six Nations fixtures: Today: Wales v Italy (3.0) (Millennium Stadium, Cardiff); Ireland v Scotland (5.0) (Croke Park, Dublin); France v England (8.0) (Stade de France, Paris). 8 Mar: Ireland v Wales (1.15) (Croke Park, Dublin); Scotland v England (3.15) (Murrayfield, Edinburgh). 9 Mar: France v Italy (4.0) (Stade de France, Paris). 15 Mar: Italy v Scotland (2.0) (Stadio Flaminio, Rome); England v Ireland (3.0) (Twickenham); Wales v France (5.0) (Millennium Stadium, Cardiff).Reuse content