Could England back up their dominant performance against Ireland, matching the emotional and physical intensity, take revenge on France for their 2018 defeat and lay down a marker ahead of the World Cup pool game?
Well, those questions were emphatically answered. A 44-8 victory over Les Blues threatened to rewrite record books; their biggest margin of victory over Les Blues in 108 years, and only one short of that 37-point record from 1911. This was less Le Crunch, more Le Crumble.
The manner of England’s performance was almost identical to the one against Ireland, but perhaps less impressive, a vastly inferior opposition leading to the more one-sided scoreline. But, although this was arguably a new level of mediocrity from the French, to use a well-worn cliché, you can only beat the side in front of you.
England are making a habit of storming out the blocks; with Jonny May’s opening try after 66 seconds, this was the fifth game in succession where England have scored a try in under four minutes. That took May to a century of international points, yet his 21st and 22nd tries were still to come, the hat-trick moving him above him teammate Chris Ashton into seventh on England’s all-time leading try scorer list. We know all about his out-and-out pace, but his quick shuffle to turn Damian Penaud inside out for his second was a timely reminder that he can finish as well as fly.
Just as France surely knew that England would seek to attack from the first, they also knew that a bombardment of kicks was coming. Robbie Henshaw’s experience at fullback last week showed the folly of picking an out-of-position player against England’s artillery, yet, despite all these neon-signposts, France selected a winger at fullback and two centres on the wings. Yoann Huget’s last international start at fullback came six years ago and it showed. His positioning was consistently off and he didn’t offer any guidance to his raw compatriots in the back three, as they were pulled around the pitch by the variety of England’s kickers. Little wonder he was unceremoniously withdrawn at half time – another Six Nations match to forget for the Toulouse man.
On the other hand, our own centre-turned-fullback, Elliot Daly shows there is an exception to every rule. Or perhaps just that it takes time to settle in a new role and parachuting a player in with minimal experience against a top side is not to be advised.
Daly was exceptional at the weekend. Before the Six Nations, I was among those suggesting the experiment hadn’t worked. I was wrong. Jones was happy to remind the media in the post-match press conference: ‘It was you guys, not me, that said he couldn’t be an international fullback’. My (large) order of humble pie is on its way Eddie.
England’s current game is based on kicking into space and chasing hard. Sounds simple, doesn’t it.
However, what England did was not only kick into space and chase hard, they also kicked into the ‘uncertainty areas’. The five metres before the 22, so a player cannot mark the ball or return a kick out on the full; the five-metre channel at the side of the pitch, where the defender doesn’t know whether to let the ball go and bank on it going into touch before the chasers get there, or pick it up and risk being tackled into touch and concede the lineout. In the end, France seemed so frustrated by this ploy one player just flyhacked the ball straight into touch with irritable resignation.
Then rinse and repeat. France were so loose in possession that England often reclaimed the ball quickly, kicking again before the opposition defence had time to reorganise themselves.
The variety available to England is what takes this to the next level. And not just the array of kickers, both left and right-footed, but combining it with two very good passers in Farrell and Slade, and raw pace on the wings.
It is a contrary gameplan: if the opposition back three come up, England kick into the space behind for the wingers to chase; if they hang back and shadow the kick then there is space out wide to throw the long pass into and release the wingers on the outside. If they go left, you go right. And so on.
Of course, again, this all sounds very simple, but it does take a serious measure of execution – and England are executing with a precision not seen in a long time.
That hunger to chase the ball all afternoon is a vital component. As soon as the intensity of that press drops off, the plan stops working – and it is not just about the backs. A lot was said in the build-up about France’s ‘monstrous’ pack, but England’s was actually heavier on the day (147 stone to 144). Despite that, the English forwards’ fitness and athleticism was superior.
In the build-up, Jones joked (I think) that he would like to get Billy Vunipola fit enough to play 12 – a continuation of his Jack Nowell-openside mind games perhaps, but the point is, although this is a massive English pack, it has the engine to match. To have a 17-going-on-18-stone player like Mark Wilson cannonballing about for 80 minutes and making 20 tackles is mighty impressive.
But amidst all this enthusiasm, we have to look ahead to the Wales game. Wales, particularly at home, will pose an infinitely greater threat than France. And the trouble with any effective gameplan, is that it doesn’t work indefinitely. A wily coach like Warren Gatland will have a few ideas about how to nullify it.
Wales won’t be caught cold by England’s plan like Ireland and won’t be so obstinate as to ignore it like France. England will have to adjust. Liam Williams, if he starts at fullback, has much better positional skills than the past two 15s England have faced and they will also likely face two out-and-out wingers in a potent back three. Kick to Liam Williams in space and he will return with interest. As that try he started for the Lions in 2017 proves.
— Observador asombrado (@Txetxu001) June 24, 2017
And we all remember 2013 and what happens when an England side go marching down to Cardiff full of confidence. What has Jones got left up his sleeve?
By Henry Ker