England and France, who are supposed to be the crème de la crème of Europe, looked more like the dregs last weekend.
England and France, who are supposed to be the crème de la crème of Europe, looked more like the dregs last weekend. Should they reproduce that form at Twickenham today, the murmurings of dissent will grow and questions will arise over the long-term futures of the respective coaches, Andy Robinson and Bernard Laporte.
The world champions failed to defend a lead against Australia in the autumn and again against Wales in Cardiff; France were booed in Paris after being outplayed by New Zealand and, but for a hairline decision over the try that wasn't by Ally Hogg, could have lost to Scotland.
Robinson and Laporte can both be accused of making mysterious selections which have undermined continuity and confidence. Reverting to plans B or C has resulted in further upheavals. Robinson has made seven changes, two of them positional, to his team, with another four alterations to the bench.
England have not suffered such disruption since the distant days of amateurism, when they changed the guard so often the Household Cavalry could have taken lessons. "This was always going to be the closest Six Nations in years and every country knows there will be no hiding place, but that's the way we like it," Robinson said.
In his defence, he has had to work against the background of big-name departures and an injury list that has taxed his judgement. Today, World Cup reinforcements arrive with the return to the pack of Lewis Moody, Martin Corry and Phil Vickery. The back row, which was at sixes and sevens against Wales, now looks the part and should provide England, tryless in Cardiff, with an attacking, winning platform.
France, the Grand Slam champions, have not shown a semblance of the form or commitment that has carried three of their clubs into the quarter-finals of the Heineken Cup. Laporte is not getting the best out of them (there is still no starting place for Frédéric Michalak), although, with Einstein in his corner, he would not solve the enigma of when and where the French team turn up to play.
Laporte was relieved that the formidable Serge Betsen was cleared by a disciplinary tribunal, which found him not guilty of tripping Stuart Abbott during the match between Biarritz and Wasps, an incident which left the England centre with a broken leg.
Even so, the French back- row looks unbalanced and Laporte has also redesigned the front row. The Sale hooker, Sébastien Bruno, replaces William Servat, one of the few forwards to catch the eye against Scotland, and Nicolas Mas takes over from the injured Pieter de Villiers.
England believe the French have gone for an out-and-out scrummaging unit. It should not unduly bother the Red Rose forwards, who are looking forward to packing down at Twickenham after the turf wars of the Millennium Stadium. The pitch in Cardiff looked as if it had staged a polo match. After dismissing the head groundsman on economy grounds a year or so ago, the WRU have now suspended the contractors and will sell the turf for charity. Dave Alred, England's kicking coach, described the surface as a "sliding carpet".
The selection of Harry Ellis has been particularly welcomed by half the pack, who play with him at Leic-ester. "Harry has been one of the stars of the Premiership," Ben Kay said. "It's like having another back-rower in the side. He's a huge tackler, he's got pace and he's really feisty."
Too feisty by half when he last came up against Dimitri Yachvili. Ellis got a yellow card for a couple of idiotic fouls on his opposite number during Leicester's Heineken Cup pool-match defeat by Biarritz at Welford Road, challenges which Robinson might describe as reckless but never as accidental. "Ellis is on fire," the coach said.
The Tigers scrum-half, having his first international start after elbowing Matt Dawson to a seat among the replacements, said: "Yachvili is an unpredictable player and I'll have to be a little cleverer in the way I handle him. But I won't change the way I play because it's got me where I am now."
Olly Barkley, who came on for Mathew Tait in the second half against Wales and almost did a Mike Catt as he attempted to kick England out of trouble, is at inside-centre, with Jamie Noon moving to 13. The centre partnership has given England grounds for concern and, for Robinson, it has been nothing less than a sliding carpet.
Henry Paul, replaced with indecent haste against Australia, is back on the bench, while poor young Tait has gone from child prodigy to bewildered of Newcastle in the space of a couple of Gavin Henson tackles.
"I'm not here to blame Mathew Tait," Robinson said, ignoring the fact that nobody was blaming the player but questioning the wisdom of the coach.
"I'm disappointed for Mathew, we all are," Robinson went on. "It's unfortunate he didn't get the opportunities against Wales, but I thought he did very well. The reason we lost is that we didn't play.
"I don't see Mathew as a 19-year-old, I see him as a rugby player and, like all players, he'll have his good times and his bad times. We sat down and talked it through. He remains with the squad and will be involved as the tournament unfolds.
"For this game, I felt we needed a change of focus. This is all about the side that can dominate physically. I'm looking forward to it immensely."
For a second or two, Robinson sounded as if he was back at the Rec with his beloved Bath.Reuse content