Brian Ashton: 'Must win' can turn into quickest way to defeat
Tackling The Issues
Fantastic news for England supporters: Superman is to be appointed the new full-time England coach! My inside information was garnered from a close acquaintance with whom I spent last Saturday afternoon – someone with a good deal of knowledge on the subject of John Kirwan and his absence from the shortlist of candidates for the big job. We discussed at some length the Rugby Football Union's phone call to Kirwan, apparently telling him he lacked sufficient international experience. Three World Cups as a coach, a World Cup winner's medal as a player, 60-odd Test caps for the All Blacks – if this counts for nothing, who, apart from Superman, has the necessary credentials?
Far less interesting, if I'm brutally honest, was the France-Ireland game in Paris the following day. The highlights? An outstanding try from a strike play by Ireland in the first half and a gritty French riposte after the interval, resulting in an opportunist score from the centre Wesley Fofana, one of the more compelling newcomers in the tournament. That was about it, sadly.
However, I was fascinated, in a strange way, by Paul O'Connell's after-match comments, and by the utter predictability of the French approach in the last 15 minutes of the contest. O'Connell, the Ireland captain, indicated that he and his side emerged after half-time with the words "we must score first" imprinted on their collective mind's eye. This message, it seems to me, is a close relative of the phrase "must-win game", and while I wouldn't for one moment claim that international rugby players are quantum physicists, I don't see them as dumb, either. Surely, every Irishman on the field would have worked out that scoring the first points of the half might just trouble their opponents.
The key thing in these circumstances is to ensure that outcome does not dominate process and detract from what I call environmental decision-making, the art of reacting to circumstances as they occur. As Ireland had scored that great try from their own 22 before the break, the last thing they needed was to resume with a mindset that might discourage them from repeating the feat: for example, a fixation with field position as a means of protecting their lead.
I suspect few of those watching were greatly surprised when Philippe Saint-André, the France coach, brought his champion kicker Lionel Beauxis off the bench in the closing stages, with the game there for the winning. The problem was that Ireland were equally unsurprised and sure enough, they staged a pretty successful red-alert operation, helped by the fact that their opponents played one card and one only in setting up drop-goal situations to the exclusion of everything else. Bizarrely, from an untidy scrum in stoppage time, the French found themselves forced to run the ball and came close to stealing victory. Close, but not close enough. Can anyone tell me how a 6ft 4in, 17st wing like Julien Malzieu can be tackled over the touchline with the game clock showing zero? Who knows what passes for a wing's thinking these days? To sum up, it is sometimes better in life not to state, or strive for, the obvious.
Tomorrow's France-England fixture has an intriguing air about it. We must beware the French following their below-par performances against Scotland and Ireland over the last fortnight, for they will go into the game determined to redeem themselves in the hearts of their fickle public.
The selection of the half-backs Beauxis and Julien Dupuy in the starting line-up suggests that it may not be pretty to watch. It seems clear that they will seek to test England in the scrum – Alex Corbisiero, an intelligent loose-head prop, will need to be at his most adaptable against the Catalan strongman Nicolas Mas – and I have little doubt that the French defence will be ratcheted up a few notches after last weekend's passive effort against the Irish.
Every French side can find a way of putting themselves on the front foot in double-quick time if the opposition are slow in resetting and reorganising their short-side defence, so England must be committed to preventing their hosts gaining momentum and translating it into points on the scoreboard. In short, they will need to take another step up if they are to have a hope of succeeding.
They will definitely have to dig in deep at times, to demonstrate the work ethic and discipline evident over the first three rounds of Six Nations games. Importantly, they must also dismiss any notion that this is a "must-win game" – that phrase again – for the head coach, Stuart Lancaster. Any such distraction could obstruct, perhaps even derail, the progress made so far. There is quite enough for the players to think about in pressing defensively to win the space on the French side of the gain line, thereby closing down the amount of time available to Aurélien Rougerie and his colleagues in a very physical French back line.
And when England are in possession? They must retain their belief, for the whole 80 minutes, in how they can best shape the attacking game. They might well require the patience of Job: certainly, they will have to maintain their composure in the face of the variables France will bring to the contest at the tackle area, for if they lose focus they will risk being shepherded into the wider, more exposed areas of the field, getting themselves isolated and conceding turnovers that are so often lethal in the hands of Les Bleus.
Most of all, I would like to see England viewing the situations that arise as opportunities rather than threats. Such an attitude will allow them to take the game to France in all areas, putting them on the back foot both mentally and physically. Let's see how they deal with that.
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