Pragmatism the key to Woodward's victory plan

Visitors' resolve is decisive as below-par home side are sent tumbling to fourth straight defeat at Stade de France
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If you want a philosophical view of sport, ask a Frenchman who's just lost a rugby match in Paris, preferably to England. On Saturday evening, emerging in his dinner jacket from a sombre dressing room, Thomas Castaignÿde did his best to oblige. "Sure, it's hard," he said, reflecting on a 15-6 defeat. "But, you know, that's life. So what?"

If you want a philosophical view of sport, ask a Frenchman who's just lost a rugby match in Paris, preferably to England. On Saturday evening, emerging in his dinner jacket from a sombre dressing room, Thomas Castaignÿde did his best to oblige. "Sure, it's hard," he said, reflecting on a 15-6 defeat. "But, you know, that's life. So what?"

This may have been a form of spiritual refuge, like Boris Becker's famous "Nobody died out there" speech, but it was certainly better than the usual excuses. In losing their fourth home match in a row in the still-glistening Stade de France, the French had given no sort of account of themselves when faced by the resolution, pragmatism and sheer appetite of England. Nobody, from Bernard Laporte down, was pretending otherwise.

"We didn't deserve to win it," Castaignÿde continued. "They were better all round, particularly at the set pieces. Their rhythm was much better. They were well organised, and they didn't make so many mistakes."

Shifted from full-back to outside half at the last minute after injuries to Christophe Lamaison and Alain Penaud, Castaignÿde found himself at the focal point of the débâcle. "We lost because we should have kicked more, and they kicked better than us," he continued. "I'm not the fly-half for this kind of game. We missed Lamaison and Penaud, whose kicking would have allowed us to improve our positional play. I tried to do my best. And it was hard to move the ball. It was very slippery and it wouldn't come quickly enough."

Unable to transfer the ball quickly to his inside centre and unwilling to trust his boot, time and again Castaignÿde turned inside, into the arms of the opposition, who were constantly ready to pounce on mistakes and ill-discipline.

Yet France's problem seemed to be equally pronounced at full-back, where Richard Dourthe, switched from the centre when Castaignÿde was moved forward, never looked like providing the sort of dynamism expected from a blue No 15. The contrast with Matt Perry was particularly telling. England's full-back was not always as accurate as he would have liked, but until he tweaked a hamstring on the hour his frequent lung-bursting runs had never failed to put fresh heart into his colleagues. Dourthe, on the other hand, looked like he'd rather leave that sort of thing to Emile Ntamack, who looked like he'd rather be somewhere else altogether.

Castaignÿde said the French hadn't expected such a physical game, but once the rain started at lunchtime it was never going to be a day for rugby to ravish the eye. Instead it was the setting for Jonny Wilkinson, Castaignÿde's opposite number, to make an impression with a solid all-round game and a series of absolutely conclusive midfield tackles.

"Wilkinson?" pondered Castaignÿde. "In defence, c'est un costaud. Very strong. I think he did a lot of musculation, no?"

Nevertheless, there were limits to his admiration. "I didn't really think England played well," he said. "They did nothing. It was a physical game, not so interesting. It was the same sort of game as last year. It was hard, everybody was hurting, but I don't think it was a great spectacle."

Not, in other words, the sort of game that interests Thomas Castaignÿde. The French, who had taken advantage of Wales' missed chances to construct a sumptuous performance in Cardiff two weeks previously, found England far less accommodating. Clive Woodward's team spent the first half playing a dogged game of endless recycling, and if the white shirts seldom looked like piercing the gain line, then they kept possession effectively enough to tease opponents of uncertain temperament into a sense of frustration.

Without wishing to detract in the slightest from Woodward's achievement, it has to be said that his claims of progress rang hollow. In such conditions, and against these opponents, Geoff Cooke's England would have done something very similar, and so would Jack Rowell's. This was a victory for everything but the kind of expansive rugby England's followers have been promised for so long. The glimpses of invention seen against Ireland a fortnight ago still look like a bit of a mirage.

When Woodward said he hoped that this was the achievement that would allow the team "to spring into something", he was probably talking more in terms of collective focus than of skills or tactics. Matt Dawson, his new captain, spoke of how this squad had come closer than any other in his international experience to the ideal of "a club culture". But team spirit is only half the armour needed to go into battle with the very best. England looked naïve in certain areas on Saturday, and were lucky that several important decisions - both by the referee and the French captain - favoured them.

The home team declined to moan about the two disallowed tries by Thomas Lombard and Fabien Pelous, giving their opinion only if asked. Pelous's attempt seemed genuinely in doubt, but Christophe Dominici's pass to Lombard, at the end of a run which represented the match's one true moment of creativity, was the kind of "forward pass" that would have been waved on 99 times out of a hundred. "The touch judge was in line," Dominici said, "and he kept his flag down. The referee made the decision." Did he think it had changed the course of the game? "Well, Wales missed chances of two tries in Cardiff and then lost the match."

England had no such incidents to regret. They missed no chances because they made none. On the day, their efficiency was enough. Admirable, yes, and no doubt a source of deep satisfaction for Woodward and his colleagues, but as victories go this one will always look better in the record book than it did from the grandstand.

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