Phil Vickery, an England captain with the happy knack of saying the right thing in the right place, hit the nail square on the head once again yesterday when he told his colleagues to stop pointing fingers at other people and point them at themselves instead. The blunt West Countryman has finally tired of the "everyone's fault but mine" mentality. "It's time to take ownership of, and responsibility for, our own performance," he remarked ahead of tomorrow night's Six Nations meeting with France.
The tight-head prop from Cornwall was born a son of the soil. After the numbskulled second-half display against Wales at Twickenham, followed by a barely acceptable victory over Italy in Rome, he feels it is time to get earthy. In summoning the spirit of 2000, when England last beat the Tricolores in a Six Nations fixture at Stade de France, he demanded a sharp upturn in physicality from a pack of forwards who have been too conciliatory by half just recently.
"This game is a very difficult proposition," he said. "I am under no illusions as to what lays ahead of us, and if we don't perform for 80 minutes this time, we'll be staring down the barrel of a gun. I don't think we, as a group, have operated at the right level for long enough during this championship. It's nothing to do with the coaches or the patterns of play. Anyone can blame the coach. You can dress things as much as you like, but a coach can say only so much at half-time. In the end, it's down to each individual player doing the things he's trained to do with complete commitment."
Four months ago, when England beat France in this city in a tourniquet-tight World Cup semi-final, Vickery distinguished himself with a pre-match address that pressed all the right buttons. "His words were inspirational," said Brian Ashton, the head coach, at the time. But these are very different circumstances – more akin to the uncertain situation surrounding Clive Woodward's side in the aftermath of the 1999 global gathering, which left the red rose army licking their wounds after a quarter-final defeat by the Springboks.
Ashton indicated this week that if England play at half-cock for the third successive time, heads will roll. The once undroppable Jonny Wilkinson acknowledges that he is one of the men staring nervously at the chopping block, as do the likes of Mark Regan, the veteran Bristol hooker, and Vickery himself. One of the thirtysomething players behind the bold defence of the Webb Ellis Trophy last autumn, the Harlequins scrum-half Andy Gomarsall, has already been sentenced. The captain is in no doubt that others might follow.
"When you see someone like Andy being dropped for this game, and see Luke Narraway losing his place in the squad, you're reminded that it's a brutal world we live in," Vickery said. "No one can afford to amble around. If they do, they'll find someone else in their place."
With Danny Cipriani of Wasps knocking hard on the door – the 20-year-old midfielder's individual try for Wasps at Bath last weekend was further evidence of his attacking brilliance – Wilkinson needs as productive a game as anyone if he is to reach the latter stages of the tournament as Ashton's preferred outside-half. Reassuringly for the thousands of England supporters heading for the bars and boulevards of this great rugby city, the patron saint of the drop goal is not of a mind to relinquish the No 10 shirt without a scrap.
"I've considered myself to be one of the players at risk for the last 60-odd matches," he said. "I don't see these internationals as big games simply because I'm trying to hold on to the shirt. I've always said the shirt should be worn by the guy who deserves to wear it. I treat England games as big games because I care."
By comparison, the French are carefree. Finally released from the chains of Bernard Laporte's obsessive Anglo-Saxonisation policies by their new coach, the former Test flanker Marc Lièvremont, they appear to have no intention of shutting up shop tomorrow, even though they have beefed up the tight-forward unit humiliated by Ireland 13 days ago.
"We must not be cautious," Lièvremont said. "That would be the worst error to make against a team as big and pragmatic as England. We will not beat them at their own game, that's for sure, so we have to develop a game of our own. After two good matches overall, we are now at the third stage. We must see this game in terms of evolution."
The coach confirmed that Romain Millo-Chlusky, the Toulouse lock of Polish descent who withdrew from the game after injuring an Achilles tendon in training, will miss the rest of the championship.Reuse content