David Flatman: Marauding pack show the magnificent side of France

Transformation was led by three titans, but it was no real surprise
Click to follow
The Independent Online

We shouldn't be shell-shocked. After all, this is what France do. Their reputation for inconsistency verging on the schizophrenic is, as we've all now seen, very much deserved. Last week against Tonga they were quite appalling and sank to an unforgivable loss. Yesterday against England they were utterly magnificent.

I, and most supposedly educated observers, thought this game would be won up front and that, in the end, an unapologetically lumpy English forward pack would come out ahead on points. Instead Les Bleus disregarded size and form and came out not like banshees, but like the team we all wanted to see a month ago: relentless in the tackle, imposing at the breakdown and almost kamikaze in their appetite to be the ones landing on any loose ball.

They weren't belting around like headless chickens, surviving on adrenaline and that mythical substance – passion – for 80 minutes. No, they were savage and brilliant and organised.

I don't think that France's sudden renaissance took England by surprise. I just think that, where Argentina and Scotland were beaten into submission, the French were able to last the distance. Their lineout functioned well and, when a ball was lost, recovered and went back to basics to do the job and supply ball.

England's line-out, on the other hand, didn't happen, but mostly because of pressure from the defending side.

In Imanol Harinordoquy and Julien Bonnaire France have two of the most natural and industrious line-out operators in the world, and together they wrecked this area of England. Bonnaire announced himself as France's most important player. The role of talisman sits comfortably on the broad shoulders of Harinordoquy, and if Wales want to reach the final they will have to tranquilise Bonnaire.

The scrummage was interesting, too. Neither side really battered the other and England picked it up a bit towards the end when Matt Stevens came back on for the injured Dan Cole, but France won this battle. I watched Nicholas Mas, the French tighthead prop, very closely and I see now why he is rated as one of the world's best. He has the strength of 10 men and shows no ego whatsoever.

He doesn't engage hard, instead seeming almost to fold in like a 1980s throwback. This allows his second row and hooker to stay in constant contact with him. Then he sets himself at an angle of about 35 degrees off-straight and begins ploughing. The angle his efforts achieve allow his No 8 or scrum-half to attack at will, instead of having to negotiate the opposing No 9 and go left. Mas's scrummaging offers solid, useable ball to his backs. He causes looseheads to turn in (chasing him, normally), which in turn sees their hips kick out a little and this makes it harder for the opposing second row to maintain shove and makes binding near impossible. So the penalties come. This is an old-school front-rower in a new school body. I couldn't respect him more.

So the French set piece was powerful, accurate and unforgiving. But that was not enough for this pack. God knows how many tackles Thierry Dusatoir made yesterday, but I bet the official statisticians missed a few. Every time I looked he seemed to be felling something in white. My goodness is he special. The back row in Blue owned that Auckland pitch.

As much as I wanted England to win, I was so enthralled by these crazy, wonderful Frenchmen that I spent the whole game smiling. They were special. Speaking with Lawrence Dallaglio a few weeks ago, he said the England team of 1999 "just wasn't ready" to win a World Cup. Maybe this team wasn't ready; maybe they'll win the next one. For the moment, all they have to do is pack their bags as the French head for the semi-final. Marchons, indeed.