Brian Smith column: England have time on their side with an extra day's rest over uneasy travellers France

COLUMN: George Ford is prone to conceding soft yards and is a potential weak link in England’s defence

It’s cards on the table time: I can see England beating the French by 10 points at Twickenham on Saturday evening, so the big question surrounds Ireland and their capacity to break out of their kick-chase tactical straitjacket and score heavily enough in Scotland to retain their Six Nations title. Wales? For all the raw courage they brought to the party in Cardiff last weekend, I think they’re out of the running.

Which is not to dismiss their campaign as a failure, for it has been quite the opposite. Having publicly questioned the ability of their long-serving coach, Warren Gatland, to summon a performance on the grand scale, I’m happy to admit that he came up with a bloody good answer. In what was a brutal meeting with a pumped-up Ireland last Saturday, the Welsh produced one of the best defensive performances I’ve ever witnessed – and I speak as someone who spent a fair bit of time as a specialist defence coach.

It has been pretty obvious over the four rounds of Championship matches to date that Ireland are not a side to set the house on fire as an attacking unit, but Wales were still something else when it came to manning the barricades. That Luke Charteris should have made 37 tackles from the second row of the scrum beggared belief: I’ve been up to my eyeballs in Premiership statistics for years now, and I can tell you that I’ve never seen a lock go close to that tally. Twenty tackles is a really good day out for a player in that position. Almost 40? You’re kidding me.

One other thought that occurs to me ahead of the Wales game in Rome: why the hell are people arguing over who makes the phone call to whom in the Adam Jones affair? This can’t be for real, surely. The Welsh have lost both first-choice props to injury, and the young tight-head operator Samson Lee is said to be no better than 50-50 for the World Cup this autumn. Under the circumstances, they need Jones back in the squad sooner rather than later.

Everyone needs a little love somewhere along the line, so I can’t begin to understand why one of the coaches isn’t throwing an arm around Adam’s shoulder and guiding him back into the group. A two-tour Lions Test prop who has forgotten more about international rugby than most front-rowers will ever know? It has to be a no-brainer.

A lot of people are making Ireland favourites for the title, on the basis that while they’re playing catch-up on points difference, it isn’t by much. I can see the argument, but England have a couple of big advantages. The first has been much discussed: by playing last, they go into their game knowing precisely what they have to do. But I think the second plus will be the one that really counts.

When you’re playing tournament rugby at international level, it’s hard to put everything in place on a six-day turnaround, as France have had to do this week following their match in Rome on Sunday. When your opponents have had an extra 24 hours of rest and preparation, it’s even tougher. As Stuart Lancaster admitted just recently, England really struggled to deal with the problem when they went to Wales under similar circumstances in 2013.

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Philippe Saint-André

 

In my experience, France have always been a big, lumpy kind of team. Under Philippe Saint-André, they seem even bigger and a whole lot lumpier. But they have people who can play and if their mindset is positive, they can cause serious problems for any side in the world. Ask the All Blacks, who have had more than their share of hassles with them down the years.

None of us can predict their mentality on Saturday. It’s possible that the French players won’t know themselves until the game starts to unfold. All I can say is that whenever I coached against them as part of the England set-up I always felt they were uneasy about playing at Twickenham. A game in Paris was a different story: that could be real “rollerball” stuff. But when it came to facing England in England, we felt we had them where we wanted as far as the psychology was concerned.

 

So, weighing it all up, I expect England to prevail – just so long as they tidy themselves up at the line-out (Geoff Parling’s recall should help) and prevent the French making a mess of George Ford’s defence. Ford is a terrific talent, as I’ve mentioned before, but he’s giving up soft yards to the opposition.

Right now, the big southern hemisphere nations will be looking at the tapes and saying to themselves: “Yep, we’ll have some of that.” Last week, Scotland attacked Ford successfully but didn’t capitalise. Australia, who are in England’s pool at the World Cup, won’t be so shy about offloading their way down his channel.

There are ways and means of addressing this issue and the England coaches will be aware of them. They may be reluctant to make a special case for one player on the tackle front, but they must either protect him or hide him. As the Americans say in gridiron: “Whatever it takes, look after your quarterback.”

Brian Smith is a former England attack coach

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