Resilient self-belief which conquered the world has disappeared

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The Independent Online

For quite some time yesterday the Twickenham chattering classes were aghast that rugby union's hierarchy might just be panicky enough to invest more than half a million in the ferocious, if ageing, talents of the rugby league titan Andy Farrell.

For quite some time yesterday the Twickenham chattering classes were aghast that rugby union's hierarchy might just be panicky enough to invest more than half a million in the ferocious, if ageing, talents of the rugby league titan Andy Farrell.

Now though, after gasping out prematurely a few bars of "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot", they are no doubt taking a rather more reflective view.

Indeed, on the day the fortress not so much collapsed as eroded tortuously from within, some might say that the Farrell initiative is pretty much the least that can be done.

Both the Robinsons, coach Andy and captain Jason, swore that the empire which waxed so strong when the World Cup was gathered up in Sydney 15 months ago, was suffering merely a squall rather than serious decline after the French, apparently dead on their less than twinkling feet when they took a 17-6 deficit into half-time, had won at Twickenham for the first time since 1997.

But there was a harsh truth which was expressed more eloquently in their eyes than their words. This was the day when the great England juggernaut not only lost momentum but any hint of that old, resilient self-belief that so recently conquered the world.

There were some convenient boltholes, if you like. If Jonny Wilkinson had been fit and kicking goals in the old metronome fashion, yes it is probably true that the French would have been beaten with some comfort. Charlie Hodgson, a fine outside-half in all respects but the critical demand of consistent place-kicking, missed three penalties and then in a moment which will probably haunt him for the rest of his life, failed dismally to convert a drop-goal attempt in the last minutes.

This was the most savage denouement for a player who before the game was passionately demanding that he should be judged on his own merits, his own individual style as a half-back of wit and some originality, rather than an inhabitant of Wilkinson's long shadow.

That plea was poignantly tearing at his spirits as the French celebrated their astonishing 18-17 victory. The comparison with "Wilkinson the Boot" was just too savage when his drop-kick sailed wide.

It would be too easy, though, to heap the meaning of this defeat at Hodgson's feet. As has mostly been the case during Wilkinson's injury-plagued existence since the World Cup, Hodgson again showed a lively mind and an easy touch when handling the ball and kicking tactically. But England have simply lost that old hauteur, that old conviction that whatever the challenge they could dig down and produce something beyond the capacity of their opponents.

Where did it go? Substantially you have to say with the departing footsteps of former captains Martin Johnson and Lawrence Dallaglio. What they had, that instinct for the jugular, that sheer, soaring denial of the possibility of defeat, was a quality for which Twickenham sighed yesterday as a French team, almost unrecognisable in the first half for their traditional wit and panache, were allowed to chip away at the advantage brought by fine tries by Olly Barkley and Josh Lewsey.

The French did reshuffle their side significantly in the second half but at no point did England produce a spark of resistance to the changing tide of a match they plainly believed had already been won.

Inevitably, there were some exceptions to this shocking passivity. One notable example was the returning No 8, Martin Corry. When he contributed to the post-game inquest it was with an infinite sadness - and a bloodied face. This indeed was the image of a warrior who had fought to the end, which in recent years has been nothing less than an expectation carried by every member of the English pack.

Corry said that it was a day he wanted to forget, a day consumed by a sense that in the end nothing would go right.

That salvation was denied England was largely self-inflicted, but even by Twickenham's standards it would have been churlish to dispute that the French deserved some credit.

Such lack of grace would have been most cruel to the phenomenal kicking performance of the French scrum-half Dimitri Yachvili. His kicking style could scarcely be more of a contrast to that of Wilkinson. His preparation is minimal. His left leg, as thin as a pipe cleaner, easily strokes the ball huge distances and with no more apparent concentration than a horse-fancier scanning the form over his morning coffee.

Yachvili kicked six penalties with a fine Gallic nonchalance and there was some surprise when late in the game he declined another epic challenge from around the half-way line. On this occasion he elected to leave some of the work to his team-mates after sending down a long touch-kick.

The French may grow strong from this near-miraculous recovery. However, there was little convincing evidence that this was a team that could naturally maintain the traditional values of their game.

It is true that the former prodigy Frédéric Michalak came on in the second half and almost immediately produced a moment of genius when handling a skidding ball and beautifully changing the point of attack. On several occasions we also saw evidence of the enduring brilliance of the now-veteran flanker Serge Betsen. But even with Yachvili's mortar-shell kicking, this was less than overwhelming evidence of a team with much of an immediate future.

For England, though, possibilities seem still more bleak. Certainly, there should be no disposition to sneer at any recruitment drives, even if they include journeys up the M6. Andy Farrell may be a long shot, but these are desperate days.

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