England's job was to draw a triumphant line under the Martin Johnson controversy. Unfortunately, what we saw here resembled more the San Andreas Fault. It meant that the coach Clive Woodward's choice of pragmatism over principle proved not so much a highway to the stars as a twisted Californian flyover. In the rubble, yet again, was that overweening English rugby belief that they are always just a stride or two from conquering the world.
This time, though, there was mercifully little talk of a freak result conjured by scavenging, revenge-crazed members of one Celtic tribe or another.
This was not a slip on the mountainside. This was the receipt of an avalanche. That reality may not scream out of France's five-point winning margin, but this was a statistic from the damned lies department. France beat England in every aspect of the game, in the heart, on the gain line, and in the mind. Woodward and Johnson, as is their commendable habit in matters of win and loss, owned up to the discouraging facts.
For the coach the painful irony was that in the end the selection of Johnson which put both men under such pressure was of scant significance indeed. Johnson dropped the ball from the kick-off, which was a dark augury indeed and much appreciated by a French crowd who had booed the England captain from the moment he stepped on the field for the warm-up. Johnson, of course, did not disintegrate, and produced pretty much his usual dreadnought performance. But this was not a day for a dreadnought but a French daydream.
A day of fine quality, exuberant running and extraordinary, maybe unprecedented, French discipline. The loose cannons of the world game had been brilliantly stabilised, and the result was a tour de force of intelligent, poised rugby underpinned by magnificently relentless tackling. It might have been, you had to suspect, that the French had never defended so well since the siege of Dien Bien Phu.
For Woodward's opposite number, Bernard Laporte, it was a rare moment of fulfilment. His team had, at the most important point of their year, made a perfect marriage between functionalism and fantasy. Every link in the chain had held, and beyond the wonderful coherence of the French game-plan, an iron blanket of defence behind which a 100 forays waited to be launched, there were two of the greatest thrills that sport can bestow. Both concerned the seizing of a day, the complete possession of it.
One was the sight of Fabien Galthié, who will be 33 later this month, rummaging for every nuance of his judgement and his talent at the base of the French scrum, and finding it all at maximum damage to an English team whose illusions were in free fall. The other was the emergence of Imanol Harinordoquy, a 22-year-old No 8 with the speed of a young buck and the mind of an old soul.
The bite and the vision of Harinordoquy was a joy. Galthié's work was a steadily burning fire which, coal by coal, engulfed England. Twice he opened up English cover with a stunning facility, and after he had done that everyone knew deep down there could only be one result. England, naturally, refused to accept the formality of their defeat, and a superbly individualistic try by Jason Robinson and a penalty by Jonny Wilkinson even provoked a few tepid bars of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot. But if England fought deep into added time, when Ben Cohen caught Austin Healey's Hail Mary lofted kick into the corner for a try, they did it like drained infantry who had been lured into a swamp.
When it was over, Woodward was splendidly honest and decent, to the point of re-opening for some of his admirers the mystery of his decision to apply a blindfold to himself against some of the fundamental questions raised by the matter of Johnson. Now that issue goes to where it should always have belonged, the administrators of a game which has blinded itself to so many moral requirements. The job of the officials is relatively straightforward. They have to put in place a system of discipline which draws a clear line for anyone who steps as far beyond the realms of decency as the captain of England did when he punched an unsuspecting opponent in the face, not in some isolated moment of rage but as part of a career pattern.
The coach can now put behind him legal and moral arguments so basic they might be written in crayon as he concentrates on the huge task of re-building England's self-belief on the approach to another World Cup. At least he can do it without a twinge of guilt that he contributed an iota of false presumption about how events would unfold on Saturday afternoon.
On the eve of the game he mocked the statistics which ranked England as the world's No 1 team. He said that in his opinion the No 1 team was still Australia, and they had that honour by right of conquest in the World Cup. They were the world champions, and Woodward could only wince at the assumption that the French game could be won by England pretty much however they chose. "The French have great players, like us they are on a winning run, and like us they have beaten Australia and South Africa coming into the Six Nations," Woodward said. "We cannot take a single thing for granted. I expect a hard and maybe great game tomorrow."
So it was, but it was also another death for English hubris. "We didn't play well," Woodward said, "but there are no excuses. We were beaten by the better team."
Certainly a team beautifully marshalled for the challenge and the possibilities of the day, a team which produced natural flair, a high technical competence and, it has to be said, strong evidence that Laporte's drive for improved discipline may have run a little deeper than any passing desire to stoke the flames of England's embarrassment over the Johnson. How significant this was in the chemistry of the French victory it is not so easy to say. What seemed beyond question was that the French players, and their impassioned followers, believed that they had won some high moral ground, partly by their own initiative, partly by English neglect. Ironic no doubt, when you consider the blood-curdling traditions of French rugby, but it was just possible to sniff the scent of a crusade.
Righteous or not, it was one which demolished England. Woodward, no doubt, has some arduous re-building to do. His comfort is that he will not have to work too hard on imposing a touch of humility. The French did much of that work for him with the range and the zeal of their play. However hurtful it was to English egos, it will have done no harm to their souls.Reuse content