James Lawton: If Lièvremont hates the English, is it because he fears humiliation for France in World Cup year?
Saturday 26 February 2011
A number of hard questions will be asked at Twickenham this evening, not least at the front of the scrum, but let's start at the beginning.
Who are these English upon whom French coach Marc Lièvremont heaps the old and bilious charge that they have created a common front of hatred, stretching from Waterford to Waitangi? They are, of course, a mongrel nation – one with the habit down the centuries of turning quite ferocious when sufficiently roused.
This might well have been the underlying concern exercising Lièvremont this week.
Pressure builds sharply in the rugby parish in a World Cup year and you don't have to be the deepest student of the game to know that recent history has come to rest firmly on the side of the English and their ability to rise up, even in the most parlous circumstances, and have a truly serious go at winning the tournament.
It happened in Sydney and Paris in 2003 and 2007 respectively and it is not the wildest speculation to believe that Lièvremont may be concerned that it will happen again in New Zealand later this year.
Four years ago England, the reigning world champions, looked to be mired in the deepest futility. Yet they caught Australia on a bad day in Marseilles, then went up to the Stade de France and did what they had done in Sydney four years earlier. They pushed the French, conquerors of the favourite All Blacks, aside, this time before their own people and then improbably went on to ask even a few questions of the champions-elect, South Africa.
Hatred has many fathers but in a rugby context such humiliation no doubt has its place.
It is at least one explanation for Lièvremont's rather rancid baiting of his opponents, but you have to wonder if he can really know so little about the English psyche to imagine it might gain him any significant advantage.
Had he, for example, tuned into one of the nation's more mellow institutions, Desert Island Discs, this week he might have been reminded that some of the least tranquillised of Englishmen tend to live comfortably enough in their own skin, however it has been composed.
He would have heard Lawrence Dallaglio, who was present with some passion in both Sydney and Paris, cheerfully defining his own identity. Dallaglio said: "Having a father who is first-generation Italian and a mother of Irish roots makes you a very dangerous Englishman." But yes, he suggested, an Englishman nonetheless – and one with the type of nature that has been increasingly visible in the progress of his old comrade Martin Johnson's team over the last few months.
It is true Les Bleus have some reasons to believe they can retain this championship.
They continue to have players of quality in the likes of Dimitri Yachvili and Yannick Jauzion and Vincent Clerc, and in their last collision with England in Paris they caused all kinds of mayhem in the scrum. Yet England surely have made the more clear-headed progress since then.
In the process, they have reminded those of us sceptical about Johnson's coaching credentials that the old warrior might just have had a higher purpose.
This was perhaps most about reminding England of who they were and what they might again represent at the highest level of the game. Johnson was certainly in a mood reminiscent of the one that settled over him as captain in 2003 when England were implacable in their belief that they had enough good players, and serious intent, to beat the world.
Johnson became English rugby as it moved towards the peak of the game for the first time and if it is too early to talk of another serious challenge to the powers of the southern hemisphere – and perhaps even a Grand Slam – there has to be a strong swell of confidence at Twickenham today.
Johnson certainly suspects – in maybe a way that Lièvremont doesn't – that he might have players of both the ability and the self-belief to reclaim lost ground.
This week he countered Lièvremont's waspish and mean-spirited assault with statesmanlike aplomb. The French had always to be respected, but feared, why on earth? "Did I think Chris Ashton would be a world-class player two years ago?" Johnson asked this week. "Or Ben Youngs?
"Sometimes these things come together in strange ways. I wish I could say everything gets planned. In any team I've been in the guy in charge would be lying if he said it was all planned out. It is not a perfect world, when you play on the field it is chaos."
It is also a test of character, of a collective sense that some of the most important values have been established.
For England today the great challenge is to show precisely how far they have travelled since Johnson was so deeply besieged by the charge that behind his iconic image there was a critical shortfall in the art of first building and then refining a team.
Can Toby Flood continue to step beyond the residual meaning of Jonny Wilkinson? Can Ashton maintain his extraordinary momentum while avoiding the worst effects of on-rushing celebrity?
For some, though, the most intriguing performance will be that of Youngs. It is in his natural-born authority, his hard and precocious confidence, that we have maybe seen the most consistent face of this new England. He doesn't speculate, he doesn't offer fantasy, the French hallmark from time to time, but a practical grasp of possibilities.
We do not yet know how far he and his team can go but when he is lording it around the scrum, behaving as though the game, any game, is his to shape, we can understand perhaps a little better why some old Gallic dread has been reawakened.
In such circumstances, which combative Englishman is in any need of love?
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But let's give him credit for a quality too rare in these days when the TV paymaster relentlessly hypes the product.
In Marseilles this week there was a truly wretched football match; even the manager of one of the teams, Manchester United's Sir Alex Ferguson, admitted as much.
Yet this didn't prevent match analysts Andy Townsend and Marcel Desailly extolling virtues missed by more ignorant eyes. United, said Townsend, were controlling the match, playing well and with the potential for a decisive strike. Desailly pointed out the nuances of pressure and clever defence – virtues we should not sweep to one side.
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Where will it end? A growing body of opinion says that it is over for the Tiger, that the maelstrom of his private life has brought a permanent blight to his hopes of passing Jack Nicklaus's total of 18 majors and gaining, officially, the status of the greatest golfer who ever lived.
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