What we learned: Courtney Lawes gets birthday blues after back-row blunders
Sunday 24 February 2013
Returning to the fold is never easy, especially out of position, and Courtney Lawes was no exception. Invited to play blindside flanker rather than his customary international position of lock, Lawes found on his 24th birthday that France were offering no presents and cannot have been surprised when he was removed in the 52nd minute.
The young Lawes played plenty of games in the back row in his Under-20 days and still plays there occasionally for Northampton, but this was a different level and he took time to find his feet. England did well to get him into the game by throwing to him at the first line-out but French attackers found it too easy to step out of his elongated tackles.
Nor did his extra weight add to England's scrum, frequently in trouble for the first time in this championship. So Lawes, remarkably starting his first Six Nations game despite making his England bow four years ago, missed a couple of tackles, expensively against Wesley Fofana at the start of the French centre's run to the try line.
England have traditionally taken pride in their set-piece, yet their line-out return is the worst in this year's Six Nations.
They were bottom of the table in terms of winning possession on their own throw going into this game and lost another two to France, compensated by only one steal on the opposition throw.
"We will have to look at possession lost and fix it quickly," Graham Rowntree, the forwards coach, said grimly.
Yet the first line-out loss illustrates the problems in this area: Dylan Hartley threw long to the flanker Tom Wood but Yannick Nyanga, guessing correctly, leapt high to nudge the ball back on his side.
As a result, the loss should probably go down as a credit to the France flanker rather than a debit against Hartley.
Half and half
The first half played by Morgan Parra and François Trinh-Duc showed why they should have started this championship for France. Ever since his debut in 2008, Parra has been a thorn in English sides and Trinh-Duc at fly-half played the most positive of games to keep England on the defensive.
Trinh-Duc's departure in the second half was as much to do with Parra's fallibility as a goalkicker as any quality of Frédéric Michalak's. Philippe Saint-André clearly wanted kicking back-up, which Michalak provided, but it did nothing for France as an attacking force.
Dylan Hartley last started for England exactly eight months ago, against South Africa in Port Elizabeth. Now he knows that, for all his experience, he has a genuine challenger for the No2 shirt in Tom Youngs and he needed to grasp his chance here with an all-round display. His appearance, though, did not tighten England's scrum during a testing first half and he does not possess Youngs's explosive speed in the loose. He was growing into the game when England replaced two-thirds of the front row with half an hour remaining. Youngs, probably miffed about losing his starting place after six successive games, was fortunate to come into a side growing in strength and energy.
Come in No 7: Captain wins the day
How often does Chris Robshaw turn up in the right place? The respective captains were both wearing seven, both are fine readers of the game, but Robshaw, also a weapon at the lineout, has something of the instinct for the ball that Dean Richards, once his mentor at Harlequins, possessed as a player.
Richards played No 8 rather than openside before heading to The Stoop as director of rugby, but his experience rubbed off on Robshaw and is part of the reason why the Harlequin's stock has risen so high, perhaps to rival that of Thierry Dusautoir who has 57 caps compared with Robshaw's 15.
Dusautoir is more of a support player and showed it as France dominated territory in the first half. Robshaw is not shy in offloading but Dusautoir was often used as an auxiliary centre and forced vital turnovers at the breakdown.
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