England continued their preparations with a reasonably encouraging display against France, despite losing to a late try from Sebastian Chabal. Brian Ashton will have much to consider before he names his 30-man squad on Tuesday.
The main flaw in the performance was the lack of ability to finish scoring opportunities – England dominated possession and territory for a large part of the game, but regularly failed to convert pressure into points. Olly Barkley should take responsibility for this, as he seemed bereft of ideas as France slowed down England’s attacks. It is a game England should have won, but they did not have Jonny Wilkinson to cleverly keep the scoreboard ticking over.
If last week’s gameplan was to keep the ball tight and attack through route one, the strategy against France seemed to be to keep the ball alive and throw it around a bit. Occasionally, this led to some breathtaking moves involving forwards and backs offloading deftly, but more often than not, it resulted in dropped passes and knock ons. It looks like England will need a balance between the two strategies to succeed in France.
On a positiive note, England’s defence around the fringes was outstanding. Joe Worsley and James Haskell were immense in defending the breakdown, whilst Ben Kay looked imperious in the second row – he dominated the middle of the lineout and carried well in the loose.
One man to stand out in defence was Jamie Noon – he made some huge hits in midfield, forcing several turnovers and lifting the spirits of the team. Whether he did enough to leapfrog Danny Hipkiss in the pecking order though, we will not know until Tuesday.
Shaun Perry looked sharp once again – this match was a much better gauge of his ability than Wales last week and he appears to be up to the mark.
Nick Abendanon gave us a glimpse of his skills at full-back, and looked assured fielding the French kicks. There is a question mark over his defence, however, after his missed tackle on Chabal – although not many players could have done better.
Stuart Barnes was on good form in the commentary box, which is also encouraging given his and Miles Harrison’s secondment to ITV during the World Cup. His line of the day was, “I’ve met gnats less irritating than Mark Regan.”
Ashton will name his squad on Tuesday, releasing six players – James Haskell, Louis Deacon, Danny Cipriani, Perry Freshwater, Pete Richards and Jamie Noon will be the unlucky ones in my book.
The coach seems determined to find a place for Martin Corry, so Haskell won’t go, the decision looks to be made as far as Deacon, Cipriani and Freshwater are concerned, Richards is carrying a niggle, while the Noon / Hipkiss decision is anyone’s guess.