Failure in the pressure zone means a rethink on travel plans

Coach's View
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The Independent Online

Flat-track bullies, chokers, folders – take your pick from the usual range of knee-jerk reactions that tend to accompany any major English sporting disappointment. Such slurs are unjustified but seem inevitable in the light of the rugby team's latest failure to land a Grand Slam.

Flat-track bullies, chokers, folders – take your pick from the usual range of knee-jerk reactions that tend to accompany any major English sporting disappointment. Such slurs are unjustified but seem inevitable in the light of the rugby team's latest failure to land a Grand Slam.

But before examining the shortcomings of Clive Woodward's side, the high standard of France's play yesterday must be acknowledged. They were splendidly led by Fabien Galthié, who was instrumental in the creation of both of their tries. He, and all their key players, had big games.

Their front row in particular stormed about the pitch creating havoc and the whole team ran great angles off Galthié and Merceron. In truth the eventual scoreline flattered England.

Although rugby union has changed significantly in recent years certain key principles still apply. Fundamentally, well-contested games are still about pressure, territory and possession. France were able to exert so much pressure that they squeezed the life out of England.

And in turn, England conceded turn-over after turn-over as they tried to keep playing the game that has served them so well in recent years. Both Will Greenwood and Jason Robinson caused consternation in French ranks at various times; but their contributions were masked by a whole host of English mistakes.

At no time did the English pack establish any sort of dominance and as a result they were unable to develop their driving game around the rucks and mauls. The French pressure was so suffocating that good broken-field runners such as Ben Kay, Steve Thompson and Joe Worsley were rendered completely anonymous. In contrast the likes of Serge Betsen and Imanol Harinordoquy were able to get behind the English defence all afternoon.

As the game wore on the French pressure resulted in not just mistakes but also in lapses of discipline and decision making. Both Worsley and Neil Back gave away silly, unnecessary and uncharacteristic penalties at key moments, while in the closing minutes even the great Martin Johnson seemed to lose his bearings and opted to go for a try when an easy three points were on offer and five minutes remained on the clock.

The signs were there early when the captain himself fumbled the first restart. This was quickly matched by Mike Tindall dropping an easy pass. And yet England continued to try and play the unique brand of ambitious multiphase football that works so well at Twickenham.

Indeed the major lesson that might be learned from this fourth failure is that there should be a real difference between the game plans devised for home and away matches. Teams at home are always more confident, fired up and confrontational.

As a consequence England should consider modifying the type of game they play when on the road. This is not to argue that they should revert to the 1990s style of "kick and clap" – they have far too much ability and ambition for that. But they must recognise that away from home they need to establish a firmer platform by playing the game in the right areas of the pitch.

On the days when your ball control is not up to scratch you need to ensure that you don't keep trying to play as if everything is sticking. In the first half France were brilliant but England failed to take the heat out of the game by establishing some territorial control. Even after their mini-rally either side of half-time they were always chasing the game. Ben Cohen's try was another gem, but by then the game was over.

Funnily enough this result may be a blessing in disguise. It will balance the euphoria and hype that increasingly accompanies each and every occasion of English brilliance at Twickenham. It will dampen down all the nonsense about them peaking too early for the World Cup. And most importantly it will keep the English team and management both hungry and humble.

Given the talent at their disposal this will ensure they remain a truly world-class side. To lose to France in such form is no disgrace, but there are certain threads linking this performance to Dublin 2001, Murrayfield 2000 and even Wembley 1999. So long as these are acted upon then there will have been no real harm done – just a sense of crushing disappointment.

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