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.

Suggested Topics
News
people'It can last and it's terrifying'
Sport
Danny Welbeck's Manchester United future is in doubt
footballGunners confirm signing from Manchester United
Sport
footballStriker has moved on loan for the remainder of the season
Sport
footballFeaturing Bart Simpson
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
New Articles
Olivia Colman topped the list of the 30 most influential females in broadcasting
tv
News
Kelly Brook
peopleA spokesperson said the support group was 'extremely disappointed'
News
The five geckos were launched into space to find out about the effects of weightlessness on the creatures’ sex lives
i100
Life and Style
techIf those brochure kitchens look a little too perfect to be true, well, that’s probably because they are
Sport
Andy Murray celebrates a shot while playing Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
TennisWin sets up blockbuster US Open quarter-final against Djokovic
Arts and Entertainment
Hare’s a riddle: Kit Williams with the treasure linked to Masquerade
booksRiddling trilogy could net you $3m
Arts and Entertainment
Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand performs live
music Pro-independence show to take place four days before vote
News
news Video - hailed as 'most original' since Benedict Cumberbatch's
News
i100
Life and Style
The longer David Sedaris had his Fitbit, the further afield his walks took him through the West Sussex countryside
lifeDavid Sedaris: What I learnt from my fitness tracker about the world
Arts and Entertainment
Word master: Self holds up a copy of his novel ‘Umbrella’
booksUnlike 'talented mediocrity' George Orwell, you must approach this writer dictionary in hand
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

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

James Frey's literary treasure hunt

Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

The big names to look for this fashion week

This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
Al Pacino wows Venice

Al Pacino wows Venice

Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

Neil Lawson Baker interview

‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering