As French rugby sails full steam ahead towards the promised land, leaving the game in the British Isles paddling around in the shallows with its trousers rolled up to the knees, it is time to identify the things separating them from us.
Their clubs have more money, for a start, along with greater pulling power: domestic championship attendances are now within 6,000 of the average gate in the top flight of professional football. They play for the most part in superbly appointed municipal stadiums, they have comprehensive television coverage and – very important, this – they all have a scrum.
Yes, we're back in the age of the dear old set-piece: the 16-man game within a game where an inch gained here and there allows a team to win by miles. Last week, both Toulouse and Biarritz prevailed in their respective Heineken Cup semi-finals because they tore up the opposing scrum. Back in March, the French clinched another of their regular Six Nations Grand Slams by reducing the English front row to its component parts. Unless and until the British and Irish match the Tricolores in the grunt-and-groan department, at club and international level, the only sightings they will have of union's glittering prizes will be from distant vantage points uncomfortably adjacent to their own backsides.
"The scrum is still absolutely fundamental: I've been saying it for years, and finally people are starting to listen." The speaker is David Flatman of Bath, widely regarded as the most potent scrummager in England and a strong candidate to resume his injury-interrupted Test career in Australia next month. "You saw in last week's semi-finals that the sides with the strong set-piece were not only able to disrupt opposition ball, but were profiting massively on their own put-in," he continues. "If you can win the hit and you have good co-ordination with your scrum-half, the strategic advantage is very considerable indeed."
Flatman, who turned 30 in January, knows of what he speaks. He has been wrecking opposition scrums at Premiership level since his late teens and might have won 40 caps had he stayed fit for longer than five minutes at a time between 2004 and 2008. Far and away the most impressive English loose head over the course of the current campaign, he is surely in the thoughts of Martin Johnson as the national manager finalises his summer tour squad, which is scheduled to be named on Tuesday.
Like every other prop in Christendom, he feels the art of scrummaging is widely misunderstood, not least by referees. "We heard a lot of complaints about the numbers of reset scrums during the Six Nations, but it's important to appreciate just how critical the set-piece contest is to winning the game," he says. "The worst of all worlds is having a referee who doesn't understand what's going on in there and ends up guessing at who's doing this and who's responsible for that. That's simply unfair, and you end up with props waving their arms around like footballers, complaining every time a decision goes against them.
"The referees are given this picture of what a scrum should look like, and if they get one that doesn't resemble the picture, they penalise someone. But every scrum is different, and it's not always possible to bind on your opponent the way it's drawn in the instruction manual. People like Darren Garforth or Cobus Visagie, who made life difficult for a lot of players down the years, simply wouldn't let you if it didn't suit them. Scrummaging is a pure contest of strength, with tactics thrown in. When you've left your lungs in the dressing room at half-time, you're hanging in there for dear life and a scrum goes down because you get your angles marginally wrong, the last thing you need is a bloke on the BBC putting a clock on every scrum as if to say it's boring if it lasts longer than 10 seconds."
Having paid close attention to the European semi-finals last weekend, Flatman acknowledges that the French are in the ascendant when it comes to harnessing the "eight-man monster" and unleashing it on the opposition. "David Skrela scored 21 points for Toulouse against Leinster," he says. "I'll tell you this for nothing: he wouldn't have scored 21 points had it not been for Benoît Lecouls, his tight-head prop. Coaches talk about props doing this and that around the field, and I'd agree there's more to modern rugby than the set-piece. But, ultimately, Lecouls earns his money by doing what he did to Leinster last weekend. He hurt them physically and he hurt them psychologically. It's a bugger of a job winning a game if that's happening to you up front."
Who'll make the tour?
England name the squad for their summer tour on Tuesday. Below are three regulars who may miss out, and three in with a chance of a call-up:
Alex Goode: One of Saracens' hottest acts. An outside-half in full-back's clothing, but terrific every which way.
Olly Barkley: Playing some vibrant rugby in a rejuvenated Bath midfield.
Andy Saull: The energetic Saracens flanker is impressing the right people. An outsider, armed with a puncher's chance.
Delon Armitage: His rock-bottom form leaves him exposed.
Phil Vickery: Do England need him with Dan Cole and David Wilson around?
Jordan Crane: Out of the Leicester starting line-up just at the wrong moment.Reuse content