Six Nations 2014: Defeat to France is frus trating and painful but far from a catastrophe for England

For all the technology, at least two of England’s substitutions looked dodgy to the naked eye

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.

 

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.

Six Nations 2014: Hurting Owen Farrell needed George Ford in the right gear for England against France  

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.

The Calvin Report: Stuart Lancaster's new approach carries air of authenticity  

“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.

Six Nations 2014: Billy Vunipola wants England to lose tag of 'nearly men' after late defeat by France  

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

TEAM STATISTICS

41% Possession 59%

9 Line breaks 9

37% Territory 63%

104 Ball carries 153

142 Tackles made100

27 Tackles missed23

13 Offloads14

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).

Voices
On the last day of campaigning before the polling booths open, the SNP leader has written to voters in a final attempt to convince them to vote for independence
voicesIs a huge gamble on oil keeping the First Minister up at night?
Life and Style
tech

Apple has been hit by complaints about the 1.1GB download

Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC
tv

Much-loved cartoon character returns - without Sir David Jason

Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't
tv

Liam Neeson's Downton dreams

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff
tv

Arts and Entertainment
Rosalind Buckland, the inspiration for Cider with Rosie died this week
booksBut what is it like to be the person who inspires a classic work of art?
Arts and Entertainment
tv

Life and Style
i100

Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife
film

Matt Smith is set to join cast of the Jane Austen classic - with a twist

Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Messi in action for Barcelona
filmWhat makes the little man tick?
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me
tv

Actress to appear in second series of the hugely popular crime drama

Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: An undercooked end (spoiler alert)
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding
musicThe singer said 'the last thing I want to do is degrade'
Sport
Cesc Fabregas celebrates his first Chelsea goal
footballChelsea vs Schalke match report
Arts and Entertainment
Toby Jones (left) and Mackenzie Crook in BBC4’s new comedy The Detectorists
tvMackenzie Crook's 'Detectorists' makes hobby look 'dysfunctional'
Life and Style
fashion

Olympic diver has made his modelling debut for Adidas

News
i100
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week