After their stunning humbling of Grand Slam champions Ireland in their own back-yard, Eddie Jones’ England return to Twickenham this weekend in high spirits and looking to build upon that devastating display when they meet France on Sunday.
Whilst the English come into round two with confidence soaring following a convincing win, visitors France head to Rugby HQ still scratching their heads at how they managed to – quite literally – throw away a 16-0 half-time lead and succumb to a 24-19 defeat in Paris to Wales.
England will go into this weekend’s match as strong favourites, but Jones and his men will be wary of a French side who were victorious in the previous encounter between the two sides and who showed in the first-half against Wales that they are capable of playing some effective rugby.
So with that in mind here are a few things that England may need to do to make it two from two…..
Maintain quick line-speed in defence
England started with a bang in Dublin last week with a fast start that saw some improvisation at the line-out catch the Irish defence unawares and lay the attacking platform for Owen Farrell to fire a pass out wide where Jonny May opened the scoring with the first try in just the second minute of the match. Having charged in front early on, England maintained that intensity in defence where their ferocious line-speed nullified the threat posed by Irish half-backs Conor Murray and Jonny Sexton along with the hard-running CJ Stander. Such was the pace off the line from the England defence that throughout the eighty minutes Ireland struggled to build any phases of play in attack, with Ireland players often swamped by white-coloured shirts as soon as the ball reached them, and allowed England to come away from Dublin with a convincing 32-20 win despite their hosts having more possession.
France on the other hand enjoyed the lions-share of possession against Wales and through their possession managed to build up a strong first-half lead through tries from Louis Picamoles and Yoan Huget. Both French scores were aided by some ponderous Welsh defence with the French players managing to spread the ball across the back-line at pace often leaving Welsh defenders scrambling. Questions will obviously be asked of Gareth Anscombe and George North who made mistakes in the build-up to the French tries, yet in both cases those inadequate interventions were preceded by poor first-up tackling which allowed a dangerous and threatening-looking France side to exploit gaps in the defensive line.
The French pack are a bruising set of forwards yet are also very capable when it comes to handling the ball as seen by flanker Iturria’s wonderful offload to set up Huget’s try, and like in Dublin England must be quick off the mark in defence as to not allow the French players the time to showcase their skills.
Ask questions of opposition through kicking game
The battle in the air was a topic of conversation before the match in Dublin last week, and England’s victory largely stemmed from the fact that they quickly managed to get on top in the kicking and aerial game and with-it shut down the Irish game-plan. Right from the outset Ben Youngs’ box-kicks challenged the Irish back-three with his short high kicks putting pressure on the likes of Keith Earls and Jacob Stockdale, and with Jonny May chasing down those kicks like a man possessed, England somehow seemed to retain possession quite quickly from kicking the ball away. It wasn’t just the expert kicking of scrum-half Youngs that undid the Irish with Elliot Daly’s smart grubber-kick causing Irish wing Stockdale to spill the ball in his own in-goal area for Daly to eventually pounce on the loose ball for England’s second try, whilst Owen Farrell and Henry Slade showed their nous with deep kicks looking to exploit Robbie Henshaw playing in the unfamiliar position of full-back.
The kicking game was less of a factor in France’s match with Wales, if anything the contest was a tutorial in how not to put boot to ball with poor kicking both from the hand and tee prevalent throughout the eighty minutes. Yet Wales’ second-half resurgence came about as the Welsh – like the French had done in the first-half – judged the wet conditions better and kicked when needed to. The second Welsh try may have come about through Yoan Huget’s horrendous gaffe allowing George North the easiest of pick-ups to score, but although at the time Hadleigh Parkes’ kick through seemed innocuous enough referee Wayne Barnes having been playing advantage to Wales waved play on to see if anything came of the play which subsequently proved an inspired decision for the Welsh with North grabbing a crucial score.
France may only have themselves to blame for the manner of their defeat to Wales, but the Welsh undoubtedly kicked to put pressure on the French players who seemed more flustered in the second-half and as a result were guilty of making several costly mistakes. If England can force the French to turn back towards their own try-line with deep probing kicks along with Youngs’ smart box-kicking, it will be interesting to see whether the French have learnt their lesson and can hold their nerve under pressure.
Punish French mistakes
This one may be stating the bleeding obvious after last week’s drama in Paris but even when Huget spilled the ball and Vahaamahina flung out his pass, the chance still had to be taken and in both cases George North stayed alert to any possible error and pounced when the opportunity came resulting in his two tries sealing an unlikely victory for a below-par Wales. In any sport the side that makes less mistakes are often more likely to win, yet it always rests upon the shoulders of the opponents of the team making the mistake to punish and exploit any error made. England won in Dublin because they delivered an almost error-free performance, forced Ireland into mistakes and then managed to take the chance to exploit the error as seen clearly through Daly’s try.
France remain the most unpredictable of sides and often veer from the sublime to the ridiculous throughout their eighty-minute performances, and over the last few years there have been very few occasions where this French team have produced flawless displays of accuracy and efficiency, and if as seems likely opportunities arise from French mistakes England must be ready to pounce.
By Jon Davies