England revert to type, but not half as much as the French

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The Independent Online

Two down - rounds, that is, not coaches - three to go, and England are sitting pretty at the top of the Six Nations as the only undefeated country. Whether that remains the case after the adrenalin has cooled next weekend is another matter. And for the Calcutta Cup match at Murrayfield on Saturday evening the adrenalin will be on tap.

The game north of the border had all but been overtaken by curling on Murrayfield's adjacent ice rink as a more exciting spectator sport but it has revived to the extent that touts, who had almost become an extinct species in Scotland, will be back in business in Edinburgh. Over the past couple of years there was no call for them as the Scottish Rugby Union could not give tickets away. Not any more. Not for the visit of the auld enemy.

Within hours of Scotland's heartening victory over France, at which there were thousands of empty seats, the demand to witness the Calcutta Cup clash in the flesh exceeded supply. The clans scent the blood of an Englishman.

Scotland's achievement, which was then undermined by their loss to Wales at the Millennium Stadium last Sunday, remains the only upset of the championship so far, although even that has to be tempered by the form of the French, who appear to be redefining eccentricity.

The more they keep banging on about next year's World Cup the more vulnerable France become, and let us not forget there is another Six Nations to be played before the global showpiece. Eddie O'Sullivan, the Ireland coach, described last week's madcap affair in Paris as "freaky". Scary, more like.

The flaky French, showered with gifts by the unbelievably careless Irish, almost managed to throw away a 43-3 lead. They conceded four tries in the blink of a Brian O'Driscoll break before staggering off Stade de France clutching a 43-31 win but with boos and catcalls ringing in their ears. Never before has a team scored six tries and been given the bird. What on earth is Bernard Laporte going to come up with next? Actually, his response was revolutionary and aimed not at his players but the crowd. "We should fill the ground with volunteers and amateurs who know the game," he said. Much more of this and the next tumbril will have his name on it.

England's visit to Paris in March had been identified as the potential championship decider, but the Tricolores' pack seem to have found a reverse gear. Not content with being shunted half the length of Edinburgh against the Scots, they contrived to produce statistics against Ireland that boggle the mind: the French made 148 tackles to 35; they completed 84 passes to 198; made nine offloads in the tackle to 34 and won 27 rucks to 100. The conclusion? Rucking hell.

Andy Robinson will be more worried about the Scots next weekend than the French, even though Scotland will be deprived of the Murray in Murrayfield. Named man of the match in the defeat of France, Scott Murray, their key line-out forward, was banned for three weeks after being sent off midway through the first half against Wales. Whatever chance they had of beating Wales disappeared down the tunnel with Murray.

Scotland have another problem and that is at stand-off, where Dan Parks is reluctant to repay the faith shown in him by the coach, Frank Hadden. Maybe the faith is misplaced. If Parks starts the match he is unlikely to finish it. Nevertheless, home advantage could be crucial - England's win in Rome has been the only successful away day.

When Scotland settle down to watch the Italy-England film they might want to order popcorn and ice cream. It is not the video nasty everyone was expecting. Martin Corry's team added four tries to the six they put past Wales at Twickenham, but it was by no means a convincing performance. The brave in bravura was supplied by the Italians, whose heroic resistance made England look humdrum. All of England's tries came from the backs, but overall there was a distinct lack of subtlety and imagination, qualities which were required in the face of a huge effort from the Azzurri.

England had looked far more dangerous against Wales. Corry, who had a quiet match, worryingly so, pointed out that winning away from Twickenham was a "big deal" for England and that the dressing room in Rome was "buzzing." If so, it must have been in the vicinity of a beehive.

Joe Worsley, having created a try for Charlie Hodgson, took a bang on the head and was replaced by Lawrence Dallaglio. Worsley much prefers Robinson's England to that of Sir Clive Woodward. "It's a more relaxed atmosphere and the players have much more of an input," he said.

Italy were not unlucky against England but they were against Ireland in Dublin, where referee Dave Pearson, making his international debut, failed to employ the video official over a couple of dodgy Irish tries. That is the problem with the replay - when it should be used it isn't, and when it shouldn't be it is. For all their blood and sweat the tournament will probably once more end in tears for Italy. There again, on Saturday they are in France, so they might have a chance.

As for Wales, they are in self-imposed purdah. Scott Johnson, who takes over as head coach, finds himself in an invidious position. Tonight the squad assemble to prepare for the visit to Ireland next Sunday. The ship is Ruddockless.

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