James Lawton: French hint at zip and verve of old to leave England's World Cup ambitions in tatters

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After scavenging Scotland, it was France attempting something quite different - a passable reinvention of the best of themselves. In the most clinical of eyes, the kind which are brought to bear on New Zealand rugby, for example, they no doubt finished a long way from their goal, but, as far as England were concerned, it was all embarrassingly academic.

France, playing entirely from memory, would surely have outclassed this apology for a modern England rugby team. As it was, coach Bernard Laporte had plainly introduced a few new tactical wrinkles in a belated attempt to placate the Stade de France clientele he has likened to, if not fodder for some future Madame Guillotine, a bunch of "bourgeois shits". But such hints of French class divisions were long dissipated when this slaughter of the English was mercifully halted on a cold but brilliant Paris day.

The ancient issue of haves and have-nots was exclusively concerned with French superiority out on the field. What the French had, albeit at times patchily, was their eternal instinct to run the ball in flowing patterns. What the English lacked, more grievously than at any time since the old Geoff Cooke regime began to lick them into serious shape back in the eighties, was all the underpinning of discipline and self-belief and pragmatically applied forward power that carried them to the World Cup in Sydney. That momentous point of English sporting history was a mere two and a half years ago, but here yesterday when you thought of the deeds of Martin Johnson's team and the surging spirit you might have been contemplating a lost age and and an abandoned empire.

Sir Clive Woodward, the architect of that historic triumph, has had a turbulent time in his new career in football but when the going has been particularly tricky he must surely have comforted himself by thinking of a grim alternative: attempting to re-seed and re-populate a team which had grown collectively old in their moments of ultimate glory. Had he stayed on, rather than handing the challenge to his key coach Andy Robinson, this would surely would have been his ultimate nightmare - an afternoon in Paris where English rugby appeared not so much to be in regression but free fall.

When the veteran wing Christophe Dominici ran in the final, wounding score - a 'gimme' interception in a straight line to the posts - some old English rugby men were straining to remember the last time the team had looked so inept. Whenever it was, they insisted, it was before such ambitions as winning a World Cup, had it existed then, would have been dismissed as nothing so much as impertinence by the entire southern hemisphere, plus France and Wales.

There was simply no point of dignified exit from the débâcle; no scrap of terrain on which England could point to a flash of promise.

Maybe the scrummaging had a certain bite and edge in the first half, but the front row must have felt that they were investing too heavily in a disaster fund long before the end. Most damaging of all was the fact that the 31-6 score told a flattering story of France's emergence as the northern hemisphere's best chance of providing some opposition to the inexorable renaissance of All Black rugby.

Certainly there were passages of handling brilliance, and at times the half-back combination of Dimitri Yachvali and Frédéric Michalak must have believed they had been granted the freedom of large parts of Burgundy let alone the Stade de France when they considered the space and the time at their disposal. The ageing Thomas Castaignède has in English club rugby acquired something of the aura of an old matinée idol running out the string, but here yesterday his performance was touched by genuine poise and aggressive instinct. Another huge plus for Laporte was the dynamic performance of 22-year-old Yannick Nyanga. He was never less than quick and imaginative, and once when he ran through half the English cover it looked as if he might personally take charge of the ensuing humiliation.

As it was the job was more evenly distributed as France easily drained England's desperate attempt to be competitive either side of half-time. The French, without ever looking more than a briefly re-animated version of all the old majestic force, were operating on an entirely different level. At times they ran with traditional verve and put some some zip into their passing; the effect on a properly functioning England would have been to sound a warning or two, but on the team which left itself open to charges of fraud when it donned the white uniform yesterday it was just about instant disintegration. England were behind inside a minute and they never suggested seriously that they might get back on to truly competitive terms.

Their victory over Wales persuaded some - the majority of whom were no doubt unmindful of the fact that the Welsh were perpetrating their own version of hari-kari - that the old priorities had been restored; power up front and a willingness to apply the finer touches of the game only when the opposition had been squashed. There was even some talk of a re-announcement of World Cup ambition. Such speculation was made absurd yesterday.

Robinson's call for discipline, for a ferocious application of basic principles like tight discipline on the laws of the game and a refusal to give up the ball easily, had died on his lips within minutes of the start yesterday.

A man of the most relentless standards as a player, his conclusion could scarcely have been more bleak. He knew he had been handed a difficult chore when Woodward left, that the days of transition could draw him into some harsh choices and days of doubt. What he couldn't have imagined was such a swift descent into lost conviction - and, of course, horizons.

This wasn't so much a setback as a full stop. England simply have to start again.