Odd game, rugby.
A week ago there were concerns that England would be playing Scotland to avoid the ignominy of the Wooden Spoon. After victory in Paris, they are now in the mix for the championship. Indeed had it not been for 20 crazy minutes against Wales they could be eyeing up an unlikely clean sweep.
A week ago, France’s return to all-singing, all-dancing flair rugby was the toast of the tournament and talk of a Grand slam was in the air. Their back three were being hailed as the unit of the tournament. England were a shapeless, hapless and seemingly hopeless confusion of an outfit, grappling for a gameplan on a trial and error basis by utilising several different ones during the course of a game, often at the same time.
But it was all change in the middle Saturday of the tournament, the day when we really begin to uncover the truth about the teams on show. Now who is it who seem to have a realistic and coherent plan? Now which team is building a solid fort on foundations of stone, and which is attempting to build an entertainment theme park on a base of sand? On Saturday we learned an awful lot about the new French and English worlds, and had the view of what international rugby is all about reaffirmed in no uncertain terms.
One of the oldest rugby clichés states that forwards win the game, the backs decide by how many. This crystallises England at present and explains why their recent victories have been narrow even though they have pulverised their opponents up front. But the key point is that they have won those games. They lost to Wales and almost did to Italy precisely because their pack went missing in action.
Yesterday there was no let up, there was no lethargic 20 minutes and when France looked like they were gaining the upper hand in the third quarter, England reverted to type. They kept the ball through phases, worked their way into a position of strength and Jonny Wilkinson dropped the goal. The front row mercilessly pummelled the French to the point where scrums were barely a contest, and they closed the game out with brutal efficiency. This was classic England, the England of Martin Johnson and Richard Hill. Maybe England are rediscovering the art of how to win rugby matches, an art which requires a lot more than pretty colours and imagination.
Having said that, there were signs against France, as there were against Wales, that England are attempting to graft new dimensions on to their game. These will take time to come to fruition, they always do, but the key thing is to do them with a team who are confident enough to try things and carry them out with conviction. This environment will be rooted in victories, in the winning of tight games and England should be focussing on this for now.
With these truths now uncovered, England must not stray from their approach. They must forget about feeling guilty for playing it tight, they must forget about feeling guilty for playing to their strengths, they must forget about feeling guilty for being England. I’d love to see the England team play with width, flair and cohesion but at the moment that will only lead to disaster. They must carry on building slowly upon what they have started and once a strong base and a winning habit has been established, then maybe in a year or two we can release the host of exciting young backs coming through the ranks. Their time will come, but not quite yet.
Marc Lievremont would be well advised to take note. From the start, France started flinging the ball around in their 22 with gay abandon but no discernible pattern or plan. Running from your own 22 is fine, but if nothing happens within 3 phases or so, it is advisable to cut your losses and clear as any error is likely to be punished. France went through 8 or 9 phases and made no headway. It is all very well and commendable having the intention to play plenty of rugby, but it is better played in an area of the pitch where you are more likely to hurt the opposition than yourselves.
The French pack should be of grave concern. Lievremont has tried to re-establish traditional French values and play the game with flair and pace. He has gone out of his way to distance himself from the discredited methods of Bernard Laporte but has taken it much too far. Laporte’s initial intentions, to ensure France were less flaky and had substance to go with their undoubted style, were commendable. However, he took it rather too far rendering his team a toothless, passionless outfit. Lievremont should try to marry Laporte’s approach with the more traditional French method, rather than abandoning it completely.
Currently he has abandoned the mimicking of the English approach and is embracing the Australian one, rendering his pack a non-event. France are in the enviable position, possibly only equalled by New Zealand, of having the brawn to match the England pack and the talent to match the Australian backs. If Lievremont harnesses his resources effectively, he will build a formidable side. If he carries on down the road he is now treading, French supporters will have to get used to seeing their side getting beaten up by any team with a bit of grunt.
On 8 March against Scotland, England’s mission statement must be to leave Edinburgh as the most hated people in the city. The following day against Italy, France must not be satisfied with their back three running rings round the opposition but must aim to dominate up front. Since the World Cup, England have been typically English opting for conservative evolution; France have been typically French, choosing dashing revolution. All of a sudden Saxon stability looks to have the edge over Gallic grace.
by Stuart Peel