There is nothing like a strong, authoritative, steely-eyed performance on a foreign field to steady the nerves ahead of a uniquely demanding World Cup on home soil…and this was nothing like a strong, authoritative, steely-eyed performance from England.
Less than a month before the “curtain up” meeting with Fiji at Twickenham and mere days ahead of the witching hour on final squad selection, Stuart Lancaster’s side crumbled against a French outfit unrecognisable from the conciliatory bunch who had made life so easy for their old rivals in London a week previously.
The sight of Mathieu Bastareaud, the outsized Toulon centre who always looks as though he has just consumed a sofa sandwich regardless of his level of aerobic fitness, punching filthy great holes in the defensive game of the equally substantial Billy Vunipola was enough to make Lancaster and his fellow coaches wonder whether they were wise to put the red-rose No 8 through a training regime as harsh as the one conducted at altitude in Colorado back in July. On this evidence, Vunipola could use some of his lost poundage. Eat, man, eat!
Yet the naturalised Tongan was not the only visiting player to suffer from an alarming outbreak of horizontal pacifism. Far from it. The men cast as England’s “enforcers” – the loose-head prop Joe Marler, the lock Courtney Lawes – barely laid a glove on Yoann Maestri and his brothers in arms in the front line of an aggressive Tricolore side. England were the conciliatory ones on this occasion and it was an uncomfortable reversal.
There were even moments of hesitancy from the full-back Mike Brown, a real “fight ’em on the beaches” type under normal circumstances. How England had missed him and the midfield scrapper Owen Farrell in Dublin at the mid-point of last season’s Six Nations, their absence serving to encourage and embolden the ruffians in the Irish pack. When a team is deprived of its conscience, some of the heart goes with it.
Not that these were normal circumstances for Brown, who suffered a couple of concussions at that tournament and, after the free-spirited, try-laden jamboree against these self-same opponents in March, spent the rest of the campaign deep in R&R mode. The reappearance of his name on the teamsheet for this one, together with that of the Exeter wing Jack Nowell, gave the back line an “up and at ’em” look, but England fans were asking an awful lot of him if they expected a vintage performance first up.
Happily, there were moments to rekindle warm memories of his deeds of derring-do: one gathering of a wicked high ball from Sébastien Tillous-Borde, tight to his own line with the not inconsiderable frame of Yoann Huget bearing down, was utterly brilliant, while a later try-saving tackle on the ever-threatening Noa Nakaitaci was as brave as the night was long.
But there were downsides too – an aimless downfield kick here, an open-field fumble there – and when Huget, cutting a slide-rule line on an inside pass from Frédéric Michalak, fixed him in acres of space deep in English territory, Brown grabbed nothing but handfuls of fresh air.
The clean-cut nature of that try, flying directly in the face of all England’s talk of an iron defence and its importance to the World Cup, summed up the contest perfectly. Or it would have done if a contest had taken place. Despite Brown’s best efforts, this was a one-way French affair for all but a few minutes of defiance at the death.Reuse content