England are their own worst enemies, but only just.
By hook or by crook, they have found their way into a seventh successive World Cup quarter-final without producing a display on the field to match the eye-catching quality of their performance everywhere else and, if the straw polls in New Zealand are to be believed, their popularity matches Jonny Wilkinson's success rate from the kicking tee. The least serious of the allegations against them is that they play boring rugby, and should they lose to France at Eden Park today, the only locals congregating at the airport will be those making doubly sure they catch their flight home.
Marc Lièvremont, the French coach, treated himself to a little dabble around this subject yesterday. "Judging by the messages of support we receive from the New Zealanders, the Argentines and the Australians we meet in the street," he said, "they are all united against England. Maybe this is true of all nations of the world."
Does this worry the former champions? Not a bit. Martin Johnson and his players are no strangers to the "nobody likes us" feeling, to the extent that the "we don't care" response comes as second nature. Yesterday, the manager appeared as stern-faced as he ever did during a playing career that brought him every glittering prize this game can offer, including the priceless opportunity to flourish the Webb Ellis Trophy in the faces of a few southern hemisphere types. In that year of years in 2003, Johnson led the red-rose side to a semi-final victory over France, the nature of which was almost a definition of English rugby. Here, he is looking to his successors to deliver something similar.
It will be a surprise of considerable proportions if England hit the really high spots against Les Bleus, even with a playmaking department reshaped along the lines many red-rose followers have been demanding since Johnson turned his back on Mathew Tait, the centre who so nearly made the difference in the World Cup final against the Springboks four years ago, and took the decision to put bone-crunching defence first, second and third in his priorities. Certainly, we have seen nothing in this tournament to suggest the former champions can take on the most impressive contenders at their own high-tempo games.
But the words "France" and "impressive" are rarely found in the same sentence these days. Their opening display of the competition against Japan was poor, their victory over Canada no better than so-so and their effort against the All Blacks a long way short of memorable. As for their performance against Tonga a week ago... jeepers.
"They're different to the English," acknowledged Johnson, a half-smile flashing across his features before the darkness fell once again. "It's not a secret, is it? The difference makes them what they are and we all enjoy that aspect of their rugby, because it would be pretty dull if we all did things the same way. If the All Blacks are probably the most consistent team in world rugby, you'd have to say that the French have a wider range of performance. Most of what they do is out there for all to see, though. The question is how you deal with it."
Johnson dismissed any notion that the midfield defence might be weakened by the relocation of the outside-half Toby Flood to inside centre. "Toby is a smart defender when it comes to working out where he has to be, and a brave one when it comes to making the tackles," the manager argued. "I have absolutely no fears over him in that area." All of which made perfect sense, for Flood has a decent track record as a defensive organiser, particularly in meetings with France: indeed, he led the line successfully from the 12 channel in the Six Nations victory in Paris under Brian Ashton three and a half years ago.
This, though, begs the obvious question as to why Johnson has wasted God knows how much time messing around with slower, less creative and less sophisticated individuals in this most crucial of roles. Flood and Wilkinson balance each other well, both temperamentally and in terms of their left-right kicking games. Had this call been made last season, or even during the August warm-up programme, the partnership might have bedded itself in by now.
As it is, Flood must find his feet quickly against a wholly unpredictable French midfield capable of anything, everything or nothing. Morgan Parra, currently bringing his scrum-half's instincts to the outside-half position because Lièvremont no longer trusts François Trinh-Duc to do the right things in the right places, should not, in theory, pose a significant risk, but his inexperience of life as an international No 10 makes him unpredictable. Maxime Mermoz, meanwhile, is brilliant by reputation only, having spent so much of his Test career on the physiotherapist's slab. And then there is Aurélien Rougerie, who looks like a left wing who has strayed infield and decided to stay because it's fun.
England cannot expect to dominate the scrum contest, especially as the squat Catalan prop Nicolas Mas is back on the right-hand side of the French front row, but parity there will at least give them a platform from which to attack the crucial men in the Tricolore line-up: Imanol Harinordoquy, the Basque No 8, and Dimitri Yachvili, the scrum-half descended from Georgian rugby stock. After the shocking defeat by Tonga last weekend, Lièvremont decided that those of his players with senior status should start acting the part and identified the two Biarritz men as the individuals most likely to pull things together for an all-or-nothing assault on the old foe from across the water.
Harinordoquy, a 6ft 4in length of athletically honed human elastic, is a wonderful line-out forward, as England have found to their acute discomfort in the past. Yachvili is every bit as good a long-range goal-kicker as his colleague is a jumper, despite having what appear to be two pipe cleaners below his knees. (Never in the history of rugby has a man with such skinny legs booted a ball such prodigious distances). He is also dangerous around the fringes, a master of the dart-off scrum, ruck and maul. If either man touches the heights today, England will struggle to stay in the competition.
Yet struggle is what they are all about. "Last week, we were 12-3 down against Scotland and flights were beginning to be booked," Johnson said. "Then we dropped a goal, there was a shift in momentum and we found a way to win. That's where we are in this tournament: everything depends on how you react to situations, how you adapt. The best plan doesn't survive the first contact with the enemy, so what do you do then? How do you fight back? Those are the important questions."
France will ask questions of their own today: only once in World Cup history have they failed to reach the last four – in 1991, when they lost a brutal quarter-final to England on home soil – and victory here will make this horribly broken campaign whole again. It is said they always have "one performance in them" at a gathering like this. If such a performance is within them, they have 80 minutes to produce it.
Key Confrontations: Where today's game will be won and lost
Manu Tuilagi v Aurélien Rougerie
Size matters in heavyweight rugby, but there is something more than usually alarming about the tale of the tape when two mere centres measure up like tight forwards. Time for the full metal jacket.
Ben Youngs v Dimitri Yachvili
The Frenchman is one of the craftiest half-backs around and has caught England on the hop more than once down the years. Youngs is having a scruffy tournament and needs to be more polished.
Matt Stevens v Nicolas Mas
Stevens has all the necessary technical mastery, even though he is falling foul of referees a little too often. This, though, is a test of the spirit, because Mas is an old-school scrummager who will go for the jugular.
Nick Easter v Imanol Harinordoquy
If the Basque back-rower has one of his unbelievable days, Easter will find himself chasing shadows, just as he did against Juan Fernandez Lobbe in the Argentina match. Two fine footballers, only one winner.Reuse content