The best part of two decades ago, the England coach Jack Rowell watched his side lose to France after opening up a 17-point lead. Rowell was not a man to suffer fools gladly and considered all forms of rugby mismanagement to be a gross assault on his dignity, so it was not entirely surprising that a pitchside microphone should pick up a comment or two as he stood near the Twickenham tunnel, watching his team fritter away their hard-earned riches like drunken spendthrifts. “I do not,” he was heard to say, “believe what I’m seeing.”
It says something for the mind-boggling sweep of events in Paris on Saturday night that while Stuart Lancaster felt something of Rowell’s frustration at close of play – an awful lot of it – his opposite number, Philippe Saint-André, had spent almost an hour in the same exasperated state. Both sides had the game won and both did their best to lose it. England tried that little bit harder when it came to the last bit and finished second as a consequence.
There was a fair bit of Sod’s Law attached to their 26-24 defeat: it was not Lancaster’s fault, or anyone else’s for that matter, that Jack Nowell, the new cap from Exeter, suffered severe cramp early in the final quarter and had to join his fellow wing Jonny May on the sidelines – an enforced withdrawal that drove another debutant, Luther Burrell of Northampton, into unfamiliar territory on the right flank, where he was brutally exposed by Gaël Fickou as the sublimely gifted teenage centre scored the winning try three minutes from time.
Six Nations 2014: England player ratings v France
Six Nations 2014: England player ratings v France
1/15 Joe Marler - 7
Strong in every area of the ferocious forward battle and shored up the scrum during the bad times. Did his usual work in the loose, making his tackles with zest
2/15 Dylan Hartley - 7
Made sure the England line out operated like a well-oiled machine. Was a willing ball carrier and ensured the front row was never in real trouble while on pitch
3/15 Dan Cole - 7
Popped out of late scrum but was in credit from all the other areas of his game and England cannot afford to have him injured at any time this season
4/15 Courtney Lawes - 8
An immense game from the lock who called the line-out well and was very combative in the close quarter stuff. Is growing into a mature forward and hard man
5/15 Joe Launchbury - 8
Big man, big game and was still putting in the tackles at the end. Is becoming absolutely vital to England’s pack and a real force in every area of play
6/15 Tom Wood - 7
Was tireless but error prone at times. Plusses outweighed the negatives but he will be unhappy with a handling gaffe that saw France score a try
7/15 Chris Robshaw - 7
Led by example, racing into every contact to compete with bigger opponents. Will be a force all through the championship and will take defeat hard
8/15 Billy Vunipola - 9
What a coming of age from the Saracens No8. He started slowly and then burst into life to become an absolute charging bull for his team. What a talent he is
9/15 Danny Care - 9
Fantastic game from the live-wire scrum half who was taken off after running himself into the ground for 60mins and unlucky not to get the try he deserved
10/15 Owen Farrell - 7
Cramped up at the end of a draining match that showed he is maturing as a leader and controller of the game. Still needs to find that extra yard of speed
11/15 Jonny May - 6
Very unfortunate clash left him with a broken nose after 5mins that will rule him out of the Scotland game. He would have loved that try chance that Brown finished off
12/15 Billy Twelvetrees - 8
Big game in midfield and he was solid in defence and always willing to take the ball up. Is growing into the role and will have a lot more to offer this season
13/15 Luther Burrell - 7
Grabbed a try on his debut but at times the game passed him by and he ended up on the wing as England brought on more experience. Will get better
14/15 Jack Nowell - 6
Knocked on first touch and France scored but put that behind him to become a useful attacking option but has learnt that he must offer more out wide
15/15 Mike Brown - 7
Had to play on the wing for all but five minutes and still managed to grab a great try. He would have preferred to stay at full-back but is so versatile he has to fill the gaps
Neither could it be said that England deserved the repeated misfortunes that almost broke them early in the piece: two wicked bounces of the ball that presented Yoann Huget with a couple of supersoft tries; one fearful smack in the face that left May, who had started so brightly, with a badly broken nose that may keep him out of this weekend’s Calcutta Cup match at Murrayfield. “I think I’ve busted it,” May said to Nowell when the latter appeared alongside him on the bench. “You think you’ve busted it?” the Cornishman replied, staring at a snout now pointing in a very strange direction.
But it can be argued with equal force that Huget’s first try, the direct result of a poor kick from Jules Plisson that became a good one when it cannoned off Billy Twelvetrees, would not have been scored had Nowell not knocked on from the kick-off; that the Toulouse wing’s second, from a Brice Dulin chip that bounced between Nowell and Alex Goode, would never have happened had Goode been more decisive in his tackling during the build-up; and that the denouement would have been very different if England had taken the golden opportunities on offer either side of the interval and not gone wonky at the line-out shortly after Danny Care, outstanding at scrum-half, had opened up a 21-16 lead with the cheekiest of penalty-play drop goals.
And then there were the substitutions, one of the great running sores of this rugby age. In overturning the 16-3 lead established by Les Bleus by the 23rd minute, Care and two of his colleagues in the spine of the team – the outside-half Owen Farrell and the No 8 Billy Vunipola – played very strong hands indeed. Official statistics tell us that Vunipola carried the ball on 17 occasions and made well over 60 metres of ground through the heaviest traffic imaginable: quite a feat, given the ferocity of the contest. Care, meanwhile, was England’s blue touchpaper man. It was he who created a life-giving try for Mike Brown shortly before the break and it was his alliance with Farrell that brought the French to their knees as the visitors cranked up the tempo from the restart. Yet both Vunipola and Care were summoned from the field early.
So too was the hooker Dylan Hartley, who had fought the good fight with his usual rumbustiousness: a decision that introduced Tom Youngs and his inconsistent line-out throwing to the mix, leaving England with Just William rather than William Tell. Why do the strategists make these calls? The answer, according to Lancaster, has nothing to do with pre-planning, though there are always suspicions when someone running as hot as Care is given the shepherd’s crook treatment bang on 60 minutes, not 58 or 63.
“We had to use our bench: the intensity of the game at the level we saw here is a step above anything else these players experience,” the coach argued. “Danny? There was nothing pre-determined about his substitution: it was just that he hadn’t played that many minutes of top-class rugby since the autumn internationals and we thought Lee Dickson [the back-up No 9] would add energy and momentum at that stage of the game.” Lancaster also indicated that Vunipola and Hartley had pretty much run themselves into the Parisian dirt.
Who are we to disbelieve him? Sports technology is now so ridiculously advanced that the analysts in the stand with their laptops and number-crunching software can track every individual from minute one to minute whatever and detect the slightest drop in performance level before the player himself knows he is getting tired. All the same, at least two of England’s substitutions at the weekend looked dodgy to the naked eye.
Lancaster’s disappointments surrounded England’s desperate start – “That’s the second time in two Tests and we can’t keep doing it,” he said, referring to the meeting with the All Blacks before Christmas – and the errors of judgement, infrequent but deeply wounding, that presented the French with their chance to win the match a second time. “Everything matters in international rugby,” the coach pointed out. “We have to get these little things right.” Because, he might have added, they quickly turn into big things.
Yet when all is said and done, England played their full part in a minor classic of a Six Nations encounter – probably the best Anglo-French contest since the Grand Slam decider at Twickenham in the spring of 1991 and the bitter World Cup quarter-final at Parc des Princes a few months later. In Vunipola, the red rose coaches may have themselves a player in a million. Several million, if his work in the lead-up to Burrell’s clean-cut try on 47 minutes turns out to be reliable evidence. They also have something significant to build on up front, despite the scrummaging problems that allowed Jean-Marc Doussain and Maxime Machenaud to rattle off half a dozen important points with the boot.
What is more, they showed up well in rugby’s many and varied intangibles: they were courageous in the face of calamity early on; they were highly physical throughout the game; they were more solid in their togetherness than might have been expected of a young, heavily reshaped team. “There was a five-minute spell after the second French try when I thought the composure slipped, but I was proud of the way we responded,” Lancaster said.
Now that the Grand Slam chance has gone for another year and he can spend the next few weeks concentrating purely on performance, the coach may come to view this defeat, painful as it was, as something less than a catastrophe.
Match facts: France 26-24 England
3 Tries 2
1/3 Conversions 1/2
3/3 Penalties 3/3
0 Drop goals 1
PHASES OF PLAY
7/0 Scrums won/lost 3/2
91% Line-outs success 87%
70 Rucks/mauls won 112
5 Rucks/mauls lost 6
41% Possession 59%
9 Line breaks 9
37% Territory 63%
104 Ball carries 153
142 Tackles made100
27 Tackles missed23
10 Turnovers won 9
4 Total penalties 8
0 Total free-kicks 1
Supplied by Accenture
Scorers: France – Tries: Huget 2, Fickou. Conversion: Machenaud. Penalties: Doussain 2, Machenaud. England – Tries: Brown, Burrell. Conversion: Farrell. Penalties: Farrell 2, Goode. Drop goal: Care.
France: B Dulin; Y Huget, M Bastareaud, W Fofana, M Medard; J Plisson, J-M Doussain; T Domingo, B Kayser, N Mas, A Flanquart, P Pape (capt), Y Nyanga, B le Roux, L Picamoles.
Replacements: A Burban for Le Roux h-t; D Szarzewski for Kayser 43; Y Maestri for Flanquart 43; Y Forestrier for Domingo 48; R Slimani for Mas 48; M Machenaud for Doussain 56; D Chouly for Picamoles 65; G Fickou for Bastareaud 74.
England: M Brown; J Nowell, L Burrell, W Twelvetrees, J May; O Farrell, D Care; J Marler, D Hartley, D Cole, J Launchbury, C Lawes, T Wood, C Robshaw (capt), B Vunipola.
Replacements: A Goode for May 7; M Vunipola for Marler 51; T Youngs for Hartley 57; L Dickson for Care 60; B Barritt for Nowell 65; B Morgan for B Vunipola 65; D Attwood for Lawes 67.
Referee: N Owens (Wales).