The French call it "le jeu dur", the hard game, and they are prepared to play it hard tonight. As England intend to take a similar approach, for the excellent reason that they have no option, this evening's World Cup semi-final in the Stade de France will be an occasion for nerves of steel and hearts of stone. The holders feel the force is with them – "These players have fought their way here; they have experience, belief and a lot of ability, and if they put those things together they'll be hard to beat," said Brian Ashton yesterday – but they know deep down that this is the most extreme of tests. If they make it through, they will surpass their achievement of four years ago.
In 2003, England travelled to the tournament in Australia fully formed. They had prevailed over the All Blacks in Wellington and the Wallabies in Melbourne; they were the Grand Slam champions of Europe; their forward pack was the finest on the planet by a country mile. Clive Woodward, that most super-confident of front men, gloried in his side's status as favourites. It has not been that way for Ashton, the current head coach. He arrived in France with a work in progress – and if truth be told, precious little progress had been made.
Yet despite the witless performance against the United States in the first round of pool matches and the white-flag surrender to the Springboks six days later, England are somehow still in business. This is more than can be said for the New Zealanders, the Australians and the Irish, all of whom fancied their chances in this most challenging of environments. Ashton's players have surprised themselves, but they have surprised the French even more. Of the two teams, the hosts are more exposed to the ravages of uncertainty.
Ashton will say next to nothing to his players today. "It's up to them now," he explained. "We've talked about how we plan to attack and how we plan to defend, but those plans will go up in smoke in the first 10 minutes if the French come out and play differently to how we expect them to play.
"I've always said that, ultimately, the players are the ones who must back their judgement and react to events as they unfold," Ashton added. "I've said my piece; from now on, I'll be keeping out of the way. In my experience, the longer a coach stays with his team in the build-up to a match, the more the anxiety levels tend to rise. The players are more than capable of looking after themselves, so I'm leaving them to get on with it."
It is hellishly difficult to separate the two sides. The England forwards splattered Australia's pack all over Provence last weekend, but no one in his right mind would expect them to wipe the floor with a Tricolore unit boasting such hardened individuals as Olivier Milloud, Fabien Pelous, Serge Betsen and Julien Bonnaire.
By the same yardstick, the French siege-gun kickers who kept the All Blacks at bay in Cardiff last Saturday – the full-back Damien Traille, the outside-half Lionel Beauxis – cannot be entirely confident of winning a game of aerial ping-pong against a team containing Jonathan Peter Wilkinson Esq.
France certainly have the capacity to wreak havoc off the bench – only a very strong team would even contemplate saving the likes of Clément Poitrenaud, Frédéric Michalak and Sébastien Chabal for later – but even here, England feel they have all the answers to all the questions. "France can hurt you from No 1 to No 22," Ashton acknowledged, "but we believe we also have replacements capable of changing a game. I think we proved that against the Wallabies in the quarter-final.
"I also think we score in terms of know-how. Having players who have been to, and won, a World Cup final is a massive help in setting the right tone ahead of a big occasion like this. While this is a momentous match for everyone involved, the level of pressure will not come as a massive surprise to at least half the England team. Emotions will run high, especially in the early stages, and the team that keeps those emotions under control in the first 20 minutes may well be the one that gets the upper hand."
There has been much talk among the French rugby public of their team's "genetic code", which is said to consist of four distinct elements: the "winning culture" of the Stade Français players, the defensive organisation of the Biarritz contingent, the inspirational approach of the "Toulousains" and, last but not least, "la solidarité Berjallienne". This refers to the fighting qualities of Milloud, Bonnaire and Chabal, all of whom were forged in the white-hot furnace of the Bourgoin club. This naked aggression was much in evidence last weekend, when the All Blacks were tackled to a standstill. There is a chance that Les Bleus will spin it wide and play "le rugby-champagne" tonight, but not much of one.
"We must concentrate really hard on destabilising the English when they have the ball," said Milloud, a veritable troglodyte of a loose-head prop, when asked to identify his team's priorities. "Their forwards are similar to New Zealand's. They may be less mobile, but they are more powerful and therefore more dangerous collectively. They are very good in the rucks and mauls and exert pressure with everything they do. They won the battle of the forwards against Australia. It will have given them great confidence."
Milloud was right: England are confident. If they are conscious of the fact that they have not beaten the French in their own capital since 2000, they also noted the way the Tricolores crumbled under the weight of expectation in the opening match of this tournament and lost to Argentina. In large part, the Pumas' victory was based around their intimate knowledge of how the French play – of the things that make them tick and the things that drive them to distraction. The champions are every bit as familiar with their fellow Six Nations competitors. They anticipate precious few surprises tonight.
Yesterday, it was Phil Vickery who gave voice to the spirit running through the holders' camp. "If we lose here, last weekend in Marseilles might as well not have happened," he said. "I don't want to be the bloke who goes home with a pat on the back and a few sympathetic words about giving it a good go and almost making it. We're here to win this game and I believe we have the armoury to win it.
"We'll need a performance far better than the one we put in last week – let's be honest, the Wallabies didn't play well. But we have that improvement in us. It's about getting the detail right. More than that, it's about physicality and bravery and guts. If we don't bring those things to the contest, the rest will mean absolutely nothing."
Fighting talk? You could say. If the semi-final four years ago was far from pretty, this one is likely to be plain ugly. Call it proper rugby. Call it "le jeu dur".
Pressure points The confrontations Robinson, Wilkinson and Corry must win
* Damien Traille v Jason Robinson
The two full-backs could hardly be more different. Traille is a centre with a kicking game to die for, Robinson is a wing who can trip the light fantastic. Neither man is a natural No 15, but they have been chosen out of position for specific reasons. Traille will kick long and challenge Robinson to do his worst; Robinson will field the ball deep and attempt to break the first line of the Tricolores' curtain defence. If one of the two establishes supremacy, he will go a long way towards securing victory.
* Lionel Beauxis v Jonny Wilkinson
The two principal goal-kickers may well find themselves performing the decisive acts of the contest. Four years ago, Wilkinson propelled England to semi-final victory as the rain fell in Sydney. Opposite him, the young Frédéric Michalak suffered the most chastening 80 minutes of his career. Beauxis is hardly a Michalak, but if his running skills are negligible, he is both cucumber-cool and infinitely more reliable as a marksman. Equally, the current Wilkinson is no Wilkinson circa 2003. He is, however, the ultimate big-game performer.
* Serge Betsen v Martin Corry
Reach for the hard hats. The most experienced back-row forwards on the field are also the most ferociously committed, and their struggle at the breakdown will be something for the true aficionado to relish. Corry is probably the most consistent of all England's players; by the same yardstick, Betsen sets the standard for the rest of the Tricolore pack. Expect the Frenchman to make more tackles in open field, with Corry exerting the greater influence at ruck and maul. It will be a gladiatorial struggle between two of the sport's honest toilers.Reuse content