All change for old foes as Six Nations catches fire in Paris

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

8 thoughts on “All change for old foes as Six Nations catches fire in Paris

  1. All this talk of two approaches to modern rugby – forward domination or playing with flair, width and pace: it’s a false opposition. You need both, and the two can co-exist. I don’t know why people complain about teams like England that use power to dominate, keep things tight, slow down opposition ball etc. They do it because it works (especially on English pitches). They should not be embarrassed or ashamed. Get some flair in midfield and the back line, and develop forwards that can pass as well as dominate physically. But don’t forget, that forward domination is a pre-requisite for any truly successful team. And as for the beautiful game played by France at the weekend – I’d rather see Dave Lee Travis play MacBeth.

  2. That’s the point. You can have both but you have to have the forward base first because that is what often wins you the match. France appear to be trying to do it the other way round which is fine against a team with an average pack but not against a really powerful one.
    England will come unstuck playing as they are against the likes of NZ and SA who have strong packs and good backs but in the longer term their approach is correct.

  3. Would you believe it – you wait 7 and a half years for a win against France in Paris and then two come along at once!

    A much improved performance, but still a long, long way to go. I agree with Stuart that you need forward power and backline flair, and that the pack has to come first. That said though, the reluctance to even try using the backline was at times over the top, even if one of them was Balshaw! Granted, it was a series of pick and goes from the base of the ruck that led to Wigglesworth’s try, but once in their 22 we just didn’t get it wide enough and rarely even tried.

    We won’t turn into the 1973 Barbarians overnight I know, but the balance is just too biased towards forward grunt at the moment.

    Balshaw just continues to plumb new depths, letting two high balls bounce and then after one of them mouthing off at his team mates (this is not football Ian) and then going in for a series of rucks (WHY?). Surely Ashton can’t keep picking him. Lewsey, Abendanon, Brown, Vesty, Haughton, van Gisbergen – all English, all can play full-back, all better than Balshaw. We can only thank France’s hapless backs for not making more of his mistakes.

    Regan has to go too. What are we learning about this 36-year-old that we don’t know already? Will he be in the team in 2011 aged 39? Yes, he wound the French up, but the penalty he gave away for punching was just lunacy. Lucky for him that Szarzevski lost the plot even worse than him and overshadowed him. Wouldn’t be so bad if Mears wasn’t waiting in the wings as a better long-term bet. Credit to Ashton for taking Regan straight off after the punch.

    When will we learn to just keep it simple in the lineout? All this dummying and dancing around confuses no-one but themselves. Regan’s lineout throwing wasn’t great at times, but he wasn’t the only one to blame. We won good lineout ball when we kept it simple, as we always do so why don’t we just stick to it?

    After all our comments on here last week about the relationship amongst the coaching team, the footage of Ashton and Wells as Wigglesworth touched down was a classic! Why don’t they just sit in separate stands?!

    You can only ever improve so much in one game, so all in all it was a really good step in the right direction, despite the amount of things we still have to work on. Surprised to see Easter get MoTM – I thought Lipman, Flood and Borthwick had to be the main contenders. Much better all-round performance with only one poor individual performance.

  4. Only one poor performance …hmmmm – that’d be Balshy then. Yep, things looking better and it’s always good to beat “Les Bleus”. However, as pointed out before, we are not getting the ball out to the wingers – why?? Vainikolo, when he gets the ball, is really effective, as are Sackey and Strettle. Pop in Lewsey (or anyone other than Ian “I want to play anywhere except full back” Balshaw), and we have an excellent backline that is totally underused.
    Anyways – loads more positives than negatives (Regan’s “handbags at dawn” moment would have been hilarious had it not led to a penalty). Noon and Lipman impressive, and Wigglesworth looking good. Just think where we’d be if not for the six minutes from hell against Wales.

  5. I think it’s important to see this game in isolation, another great win in Paris which is to be rightly applauded and revelled in, but in no way a huge leap forward.

    All the comments about forward power being the fulcrum which intricate back play compliments but cannot do without are spot on. As is Chris’s point that only by virtue of throwing away the Welsh game in a brief period of madness are we not sat on top of the table talking about a potential English grand slam.

    However, we did implode in front of our home crowd on the opening weekend and we did only scrape the away fixture in Rome despite sitting comfortably at 20-6 at half time – would SA or NZ have ever done the same, no they would have trounced them! (as Wales did, granted at home)

    There are serious flaws in the national set up, emanating from the RFU, compounded by Ashton and discussed at length on this blog. I don’t know what the answer is, I just hope Rob Andrew and/or Francis Baron have an idea, because you’re right Chris, we do have some outstanding backs and are supposed to be witnessing an English post-world cup evolution involving a boom in ripening rugby talent. Premiership games recently have rubbished any notion that English backs don’t possess flair.

    Whatever the long-term solution, getting rid of Balshaw is certainly the start with Lewsey the obvious replacement, but when are we going to see Sinbad back in an England jersey, and if Ashton is determined not to play Lewsey why not give Cipriani a run at the back?!

    Also, as for the Volcano, seriously impressed so far: not with any devastating displays of power or massive hits but mainly for his clever off-loading, developing positional play and textbook touchline defence – all supposedly the more complex skills to acquire for ex-league converts.

  6. Rob D’s right. I’m worried that this minor positive – which may well be followed by wins over two other weak opponents – will overshadow what is a dreadful situation. I can almost hear Rob Andrew now – a successful tournament, apart from one 20 minute spell – so no need to do anything drastic….

  7. Let’s face it, it’s still wide open for anybody to win. Wales have their two hardest matches to get through, France need to beat Wales, England have to beat Ireland or viice versa….but all that means we should get some GREAT rugby over the last games and I shall be more than happy with that.

    As for England, or rather the state of management, Lord knows. At least we beat the French.

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