Precisely one hour after emerging from the deep fog of anaesthetic following surgery on a chronic knee condition, Austin Healey was told by his specialist that he should give up rugby as a bad job and do something more sensible with his time.
Healey was not best pleased. "How did I react? Well, I put him in a headlock," recalled the irrepressible Leicester Lip late on Saturday night. But there must have been moments at Stade Vélodrome, not least while being made to look a mug by the unforgiving Fabien Galthié, when he wondered whether the good doctor might have been somewhere near the mark.
"You must have been delighted with the way you played out there," suggested the first of Healey's after-match inquisitors. "Er, not really," replied the scrum-half, who suffered the same indignities at the base of the England scrum as had Kyran Bracken, one of his rivals for the position at the World Cup, the last time England lost a Test. The occasion was in Paris against these very opponents, 15 outings and 17 months previously. "I was under a lot of pressure. We all made mistakes, unfortunately, and they came at crucial moments."
Healey's most costly error, a split-second's hesitation at the tackle area that allowed Galthié the luxury of some quick turnover ball, contributed directly to a try for Nicolas Brusque, the long-striding full-back from Biarritz. It slammed the door shut on a bright opening from England - Mike Tindall, one of the few obvious first-choicers on view and certainly among the most accomplished, had carved up Damien Traille from distance at the end of the first quarter to establish a 10-3 lead - and with the all-important cord between the No 9 and his rookie No 8, Alex Sanderson, growing less umbilical by the minute, the Tricolores were able to inch their way home.
Maybe Healey will get the big trip to Australia despite his discomfort on Saturday night; maybe Clive Woodward, the England coach, will decide that Andy Gomarsall, so impressive against the Welsh in Cardiff nine days ago, is one specialist too many and pack Healey's coat of many colours as insurance against the perils of a seven-week campaign. But that is hardly the point - not in this particular case, at any rate. There are more important things in life than World Cups, and Healey has discovered some of them.
"I would love to go to Australia, and I've worked my socks off to make sure it happens," he said. "But Andy has worked every bit as hard, and if he is selected, he will travel with my total support and my very best wishes. After the year I've just had, I see things in a different way. What really matters to me after such a serious injury, and such a depressing prognosis, is that I can call myself a rugby player once again. Most of all, I feel a debt of gratitude to the people who have helped me: my family, the doctors in America, the England medical team. I owe them more than I can say. I know this stuff doesn't sound like me, but it's genuine."
If Healey struggled to subdue Galthié in the sweltering late-evening humidity - to stop France, you must first and foremost stop their captain - he can be forgiven. For all its technical flaws, his performance said much about the continuing health of a competitive spirit that had recently been pushed to its limits. He had not played scrum-half for England since the 134-point sleepwalk against the destitute amateurs of Romania in the winter of 2001, or at club level for almost exactly a year. Yet he sniped and scrapped for all he was worth, lasted the full 80 minutes and looked as fit as any of his countrymen. Woodward was right to award him a mention in dispatches.
The issues of greatest concern lay elsewhere. England's line-out operation was truly shambolic, their scrummaging less than secure. "It's hard to play rugby when you have no quality line-out ball, no quality scrum ball and no go-forward," said Tindall, his comprehensively busted nose now almost at right-angles to the rest of his face. "We were pretty awful, I'm afraid." Not as afraid as Andy Robinson, the forwards coach, who now knows the degree of threat posed by Les Bleus, whom England may well meet in the World Cup semi-finals.
Of the "perhaps, perhaps not" brigade chasing a dwindling number of vacancies in the 30-man squad, Martin Corry raised his hand so high he might have touched the Provencal peaks surrounding the most atmospherically hostile arena in the whole of France. This was his most complete performance in an England shirt, by a distance. He was brave on the floor, relentless in the tackle, utterly driven in pursuit of his goals, both personal and collective. He was aggressive, too, and while one mildly threatening approach to a ball-boy was far from his most intelligent contribution of the night, he at least relished the contest with the hard-heads in blue.
And anyway, England did not need Corry to place a bunsen burner under the already overheated audience; the back-room staff managed quite nicely on their own, thank you very much. After Phil Larder, the defensive coach, had refused to budge in the face of an entire company of bandsmen from the Foreign Legion, the grandly named "kit technician", Dave Tennison, decided to run between Frederic Michalak and the ball as the French outside-half lined up his conversion of Brusque's try. It looked like a cunning plan worthy of Baldrick himself. Certainly, Michalak fluffed his kick.
"Our best move of the night, definitely," laughed Woodward, before apologising to his hosts for Tennison's honest mistake. But he might think on. If one player caught the eye in a harsh, occasionally brutal contest punctuated by blood injuries as well as fundamental errors of skill and judgment, it was Michalak. Rather like Healey, he can perform more roles than Olivier. Unlike the Healey of Saturday night, he can perform them under pressure of the greatest severity. If his goal-kicking was scratchy, who cares? It would be as well to moan about Van Gogh's cooking. His running game was new and thrilling and priceless. Someone will have to do something about him.
Had Traille, an inside centre of considerable quality, not performed as ham-fistedly as he did; had Aurelien Rougerie, the top-drawer wing from Montferrand, been remotely in form; had Imanol Harinordoquy, the Basque No 8, not declared himself anonymous... if France had clicked as they generally do in this city, they would have won by a dozen points. There again, England created chances - Sanderson could and should have scored twice, the fleet-footed Iain Balshaw was denied only by the most marginal of offside calls - while resting many of their best players.
"It was a victory, yes, but a little victory," admitted Raphael Ibanez, the French hooker and former captain. And it was a little defeat for England, even though Woodward was bitterly disappointed with his side's lack of composure and precision. If, as expected, these two meet next in Sydney on 16 November, the word "little" will not feature in the match vocabulary.
France: Try Brusque; Penalties Michalak 3; Drop goal Michalak. England: Try Tindall. Conversion Grayson; Penalties Grayson 3.
FRANCE: N Brusque (Biarritz); A Rougerie (Montferrand), Y Jauzion (Toulouse), D Traille (Pau), C Dominici (Stade Français); F Michalak (Toulouse), F Galthie (Stade Français, capt); J-J Crenca (Agen), Y Bru (Toulouse), S Marconnet (Stade Français), J Thion (Biarritz), F Pelous (Toulouse), S Betsen (Biarritz), O Magne (Montferrand), I Harinordoquy (Pau). Replacements: O Milloud (Bourgoin) for Crenca, 6-8, 40-42 and 66; B Liebenberg (Stade Français) for Traille, 54; R Ibanez (Saracens) for Bru 55; P Tabacco (Stade Français) for Betsen, 57-62 and 65; D Auradou (Stade Français) for Thion, 65; S Chabal (Bourgoin) for Magne, 75.
ENGLAND: I Balshaw (Bath); J Lewsey (Wasps), O Smith (Leicester), M Tindall (Bath), B Cohen (Northampton); P Grayson (Northampton), A Healey (Leicester); G Rowntree (Leicester), D West (Leicester, capt), J White (Leicester), S Borthwick (Bath), D Grewcock (Bath), M Corry (Leicester), L Moody (Leicester), A Sanderson (Sale). Replacements: J Leonard (Harlequins) for White, 6-8 and for Rowntree 61; J Noon (Newcastle) for Cohen, 10-19 and for Balshaw, 54; S Thompson (Northampton) for West, 50; S Shaw (Wasps) for Borthwick, 61; A Gomarsall (Gloucester) for Tindall, 75.
Referee: M Lawrence (South Africa).Reuse content