Six Nations: Off-colour England still have look of champions
Victory over France despite set-piece failings is a huge fillip for Lancaster
There are people out there who remember a time when England could confidently expect to win a major international match without a stable scrum or a fully functioning line-out, but as they can also tell us what it was like to live through the Great Depression, we can safely say it is not the modern way. By prevailing 23-13 over France at the weekend without a set-piece game worthy of the name, Stuart Lancaster's side showed us something new – something that suggested, more strongly than at any point in the last year, that they may be a champion team in the making.
You could see it in Lancaster's expression an hour or so after the final whistle as the significance of the victory slowly dawned on him. The head coach was not exactly whooping it up - rugby folk of Cumbrian stock prefer the po-faced approach, as Steve Borthwick demonstrated during his Eeyore-ish tour of duty as England skipper - but he was a picture of relief and satisfaction. Correctly, he had identified these opponents, hell-bent on avenging the indignities of recent weeks, as supremely threatening. To have beaten them with an off-colour display was quite something.
"Yes, I did regard this as a really dangerous game," the coach admitted. "What you saw out there was a French team of high quality, highly motivated. When you put that cocktail of ingredients together, the danger is obvious. Problem-solving is a big thing in rugby because the things you bank on don't always go your way, so it's good for the players to go through an experience like this one. You can't replicate it on the training field. There were aspects of the game that didn't go well for us, but I've told the players it was a bloody good win and that they should enjoy the moment. I'm delighted to get that victory."
Many, perhaps most, of the eye-catching acts were clad in blue: behind the scrum the Tricolores possessed the hard-running full-back Yoann Huget, the high-calibre centre Wesley Fofana and the master manipulator Morgan Parra; up front, they were armed with Thomas Domingo, that squat little bundle of pain and torment, and Louis Picamoles, one of the more punishing ball-carriers in the sport. And then there was the flanker and captain, Thierry Dusautoir, whose command performances tend to be off the scale. Philippe Saint-André, who has not always seen eye-to-eye with the Toulouse forward during his time as head coach, had no doubts as to the quality of his contribution here. "That was his best game since the World Cup final and also reminiscent of it," he said. As Dusautoir had touched greatness that day in Auckland, this was lavish praise indeed.
It is also worth mentioning that England had a valuable ally, if an unwitting one, in Craig Joubert, the South African referee. Some of his early decisions against the French were peculiar to the point of unfathomability, and his failure to spot the glaring illegality in the build-up to England's freakishly fortunate game-turning try - when Tom Wood fly-hacked the ball at a ruck, it reached Manu Tuilagi in great rolling acres of open space via the shin of Mako Vunipola, who was patently in an offside position - did not amuse Saint-André one little bit. The French already had history with Joubert. Now they have some more.
"Straight off the training field," said Wood afterwards. "I've been practising that for 15 years." The No 8 could be forgiven the joke: along with Chris Robshaw, his back-row partner, he had been far and away England's most effective player - not just in the destructive areas of the contest, where he never fails to impress, but in possession too. "Actually," he continued, more seriously, "you make your own luck in this game with your commitment and your attitude. They picked a big, strong pack and came here to bully us, but we didn't allow ourselves to become flustered."
And that was the key point. All sorts of things went awry for England: the dry statistics tell us that the scrum struggled - a 71 per cent delivery rate is not the stuff of iron-clad solidity - and while the French managed only two line-out steals according to the official figures, the story told by the naked eye was of endless red-rose trials and tribulations in this most important of disciplines. They also conceded a super-soft try to Fofana, tacklers bouncing off him like flies off a windshield. Yet there was not even a hint of panic. Wherever this team goes shopping for its collective self-belief, it is a top-of-the-range store.
Increasingly, it is evident that England are ahead of the game on the conditioning front and are better than any other side in Europe when it comes to influencing games from the bench. Saint-André, uncomfortably aware that his selection policy at the start of the Six Nations had precious few supporters, picked the right people in the right places for this one, but the moment he started tinkering - the half-backs, Parra and François Trinh-Duc, were substituted at the wrong moments - his team began to slip away. Lancaster, on the other hand, enjoyed a handsome return from Vunipola, Tom Youngs and James Haskell.
If the coach left Twickenham with a couple of concerns, they were far from insignificant. Owen Farrell, worryingly prone to cramp in the past, failed to reach close of play after pulling up with a fast-deteriorating thigh injury, and in the event, Lancaster was grateful for Toby Flood's nervelessness in shutting down the game with two well-struck penalties at the back end of the contest. Chris Ashton, on the other hand, stayed on the field far too long. The harder he tries - and he tried ridiculously hard on Saturday evening - the worse he plays.
"Chris knows there are areas of his game he needs to work on," the coach conceded. "We've spoken about it. There are options there: we could run Manu on the wing and play Billy Twelvetrees in midfield." Or he could recall David Strettle of Saracens, or bring Charlie Sharples of Gloucester back into the fold with the promise of a game in his optimum position, which would be a novelty. Gone are the days when Ashton will be picked on reputation alone.
That, though, is a decision for tomorrow, or the day after. For now, Lancaster can relax. The next game is almost a fortnight distant, against the weakest side in the tournament. Life could hardly be better - not that the coach would dream of admitting it in public.
Scorers: England: Try Tuilagi; Penalties Farrell 4, Flood 2.
France: Try Fofana; Conversion Parra; Penalties Parra, Michalak.
Referee C Joubert (South Africa). Attendance 82,000.
Man for man marking:
15. Alex Goode
Tested positionally by the probing Parra, his rugby intelligence shone like a beacon. Ultra-reliable. 7/10
14. Chris Ashton
Ultra-unreliable. He flaps at so many tackles, someone should stick him in an aviary. 3
13. Manu Tuilagi
Beat Bastareaud in the battle of the human bowling balls and scored when it mattered. 7
12. Brad Barritt
Same old, same old. When it comes to defence, he is a one-man barricade. 6.5
11. Mike Brown
Fiery and feisty, the repositioned full-back coped well enough without imposing himself. 5.5
10. Owen Farrell
Another fire-and-ice performance from the force of nature. The leg injury hampered him. 6
9. Ben Youngs
Pitting his wits against a maestro, his work was a little on the scruffy side. 5.5
1. Joe Marler
A painful spell of hard yakka at the scrum, but useful in the loose exchanges. 5
2. Dylan Hartley
Fizzing on his recall to the starting team, but the set-piece problems cramped his style. 5.5
3. Dan Cole
Tested at the scrum but wonderful in the tackling and breakdown duties. An influential presence. 6.5
4. Joe Launchbury
Another notch for the new kid, who met the challenge like a 40-cap veteran. 6.5
5. Geoff Parling
There was an air of calm about him, even when his line-out was malfunctioning. 6
6. Courtney Lawes
Lost in a fog of missed tackles and positional faux pas. Not a Test flanker. 3.5
7. Chris Robshaw
Definitely a Test flanker. The captain ran himself into the ground and squeezed himself dry. 9
8. Tom Wood
In his most constructive game at this level, he also fought the French to a standstill. 9
Best off the bench: Tom Youngs
Half an hour's worth of aggressive, low-slung raids on the French spirit. Highly encouraging. 7
15. Yoann Huget
Played the full-back role as though he were on the wing: fast, direct, dangerous. 7.5/10
14. Vincent Clerc
A ho-hum effort from a player of considerable class. Expect him to improve quickly. 5
13. Mathieu Bastareaud
A ho-hum effort from a player of considerable size. A one-trick pony, really. 5
12. Wesley Fofana
Now we're talking high quality. His try took a lot of scoring, despite England's assists. 7.5
11. Benjamin Fall
He fell out with Ashton, which was amusing enough, but precious little else to report. 5
10. Francois Trinh-Duc
Always picked when France are in strife and expected to deliver. Pretty good, considering. 7
9. Morgan Parra
Excellent. Spikily accomplished and full of ideas, he should have played the full 80 minutes. 8
1. Thomas Domingo
An awkward customer who asked awkward questions. England were relieved to see him substituted. 7.5
2. Benjamin Kayser
Played a strong hand in a good scrummaging performance. Not the greatest hooker, but effective. 6
3. Nicolas Mas
Still a prop to be reckoned with, even though the referee was on his case. 7
4. Christophe Samson
Not the worst debut ever. Showed signs of rapid development as the game unfolded. 6
5. Yoann Maestri
The enforcer ran into people more forceful than anticipated, but fought his corner. 5.5
6. Yannick Nyanga
Dangerous, although he could not quite find ways of giving France the width they craved. 6.5
7. Thierry Dusautoir
A remarkable work rate from a remarkable player. Tackles, line-out steals, leadership, the lot. 9
8. Louis Picamoles
Heavy-duty carrying in narrow channels is no easy skill. The No 8 mastered it. 8. 5
Best off the bench: Vincent Debaty
Little to beat - the French changes largely backfired - but the prop contributed at close quarters. 5
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