James Lawton: Beauty of England is that they know how to win ugly

English prospects for World Cup 2015 have improved quite dramatically
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Sometimes an echo of history can sound like a rifle shot. It can be a terrible reproach or a call to arms and for England the good news is that in putting down a briefly threatening French revival on Saturday they may have achieved the latter.

About one thing we can be certain. The dressing-room victory speech of their captain, Chris Robshaw, had to bear an uncanny resemblance to that of one of his predecessors, Will Carling, 22 years ago.

In the shadow of a more imminent World Cup, Carling told his men that they had learnt one of the great secrets of sport. It is that one of the better tests of your progress is the ability to play badly and yet still win, still find before it is too late some of your best fighting instincts.

That day Carling's team won England's first Grand Slam in 11 years and in the following autumn played their maiden World Cup final, losing narrowly to Australia. They had become strong at a potentially broken place, winning 21-19 after repulsing a coruscating French back division which outscored England by three tries to one and produced one score that still lingers in the memory, a move that involved such luminaries as Serge Blanco, Philippe Sella and Didier Camberabero before being finished off by the currently embattled coach, Philippe Saint-André.

Twickenham regulars rated it the try of the 20th century, which was a degree of veneration never likely to go out to Wesley Fofana's thrilling scamper along the left flank on Saturday. This was due to the fact that it was partly the result of rank English defence. However, Robshaw was right both to criticise that appalling lapse and point out that the response, both on the field and eventually from the bench, carried the mark of a genuinely committed team.

One consequence is that not only is this new England well placed to collect the nation's first Grand Slam in 10 years, their prospects for World Cup 2015 have improved quite dramatically from the point of moral and technical breakdown represented by the gut-wrenching misadventure in New Zealand barely a year ago.

Maybe the greatest benefit of all is that coach Stuart Lancaster's need to warn against complacency requires not a lot more than the classic reaction to a substandard performance by an old NFL coach who said: "Some of my guys think they already know everything but I think they might think differently when they see the film."

Two of England's most celebrated performers will perhaps be ushered into the first row of the audience. Chris Ashton, he of that ludicrous splashdown, is surely in international career crisis. His defence was especially feeble and it didn't help that his final moments on the field were spent gratuitously provoking his direct opponent Benjamin Fall. In a team that is supposed to be growing up, and has already given plenty of impressive evidence it is so, Ashton unfortunately created the inappropriate image of an ageing teenager.


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It is likely to be some time before the hugely lauded 21-year-old Owen Farrell provokes such an accusation but his too was a disquieting performance. Old-headed before his time, superbly schooled by his iconic father Andy, Farrell gave off alarmingly unwelcome signs that not only had he been reading but also believing quite a lot of his recent publicity.

The superb focus and metronomic kicking he displayed in Dublin recently declined here into something else again. Of course, there were still plenty of reasons to admire both his talent and his temperament, but this was hardly the case when he indulged in some baiting of the French that was as potentially counter-productive as Ashton's.

There is, though, a formidable case to be made for Farrell that was hardly blemished. It is that in the range of his game, his sense of time and space, quite apart from the prodigious kicking, he plainly has the capacity to stride beyond the achievements of his fabled predecessor Jonny Wilkinson. However, in one respect it may be that his father has to point out the supreme quality of the player who became so integral to the hopes of his team. Wilko never needed to be told that the job was always only half-done.

Farrell, at least until this point, has never seemed in need of such advice. Unquestionably, though, this was a day when there was a disconcerting instinct to reach for the alarm bell.

Fortunately, Toby Flood, who can only have sighed at the authority of his young rival's recent progress, replaced him with much composure and no little style. His two penalties condemned the French to their third straight Six Nations defeat and reminded Farrell that his coach is not without viable options, including the precocious and highly creative Freddie Burns of Gloucester.

Scrum-half Ben Youngs was another who stepped down a little from the high terrain he achieved in recent games – but again there was adequate strength to be called from the bench in Danny Care.

None of this touched seriously the sense that Lancaster is showing the sharpest instinct for achieving a genuine competition in a squad of burgeoning strength. One consequence, shattering for the French, who briefly played some of their best rugby since beating England and Wales in the World Cup and stretching the champion All Blacks so menacingly in the final, was the irresistible re-emergence of Manu Tuilagi. His anticipated seismic collision with Mathieu Bastareaud was more in the way of a walkover, despite the fact that his vital try should have been wiped out by referee Craig Joubert for several instances of offside.

In this respect England were lucky and also in the bizarre decision of Saint-André to withdraw the superior half-back combination of Morgan Parra and François Trinh-Duc. But if England had a degree of fortune, and the strength which came with much better and more scientific preparation, they also found that new and important dimension.

They proved that they could indeed win ugly. It was not so much a valuable asset as a rite of passage.