Out To The French – Quelle Horreur! Or Not, As The Case May Be…
Everyone knows the inherently mercurial nature of the French international rugby team. They might have a history of shocking perennial World Cup favourites New Zealand on a number of occasions, but England’s Gallic foes are just as adept at losing to Tonga in the group stages, or even Italy in the Six Nations. They are usually their own worst enemy, yet give the French confidence and they will dance past you with a confident and disdainful swagger. In the words of Will Greenwood, ‘they will walk around nonchalant, as if Gitanes are hanging from their lower lip.’
Given the perceived turmoil in the French camp over previous weeks, it was vital England controlled the early stages of this contest, keeping point-scoring to a minimum and allowing classic French doubt to creep back in. After all, French doubt is a vintage Tonga exploited so gallingly a week previous.
Instead, England offered the sort of chaotic and ill-disciplined start that French fans could only have dreamed of. Five penalties conceded in the opening twenty-eight minutes, line-outs lost and scrums turned ad nauseam, a pack blown apart, the breakdown conceded, and more misplaced passes and missed tackles than you could shake a hastily purchased baguette at. Even Jonny Wilkinson – the man who used to strike fear and silence into French crowds – obliged, carelessly lifting a re-start straight out of play.
Such generosity to French men has not been in such abundance since fate bestowed sultry ex-model and singer-songwriter Carla Bruni upon impish President Nicolas Sarkozy back in November of 2007, a time which was, incidentally, barely a month after the completion of the French-hosted World Cup which England so rudely spoilt the party at the semi-final stage. This time, the boot was firmly on the other foot. Allez les Bleus!…
At their swashbuckling best, the French seized the initiative as much as England handed it to them on a silver platter. Two successfully kicked penalties and a brace of tries followed and a sixteen-point lead was established; it was held at the break. Where a week ago amusingly characteristic disorganisation and white-flag waving prevailed in the mutinous French camp, now Mont Blanc stood between England and the third consecutive semi-final birth they felt so entitled to.
Following the interval England found out that they had left themselves, in the succinct words of manager Martin Johnson, ‘with far too much to do.’ Sure, two tries came as the comeback was threatened, but it was ultimately as futile as tensing one’s neck muscles to prevent the cut of a dropping guillotine. Hasty and ill-judged off-loads frequently surrendered possession, and a lack of on-pitch leadership, calmness and direction were conspicuous by their absences.
There were changes from the bench, but – Alex Corbisiero’s arrival in the front-row aside – their impacts were as mixed as their timings were mostly belated. Notably, Courtney Lawes, a second-rower, replaced flanker Tom Croft, when a like-for-like switch involving back-rower James Haskell seemed more logical and likely. Haskell – one of England’s stand-out players from the tournament to that point – was not to appear until there were barely fifteen minutes remaining. Mark Cueto’s 75th-minute try had the feeling of the consolation goal that all football fans have come to simultaneously love and hate.
England did come close, indeed other good opportunities went to waste, but never did they convince that this comeback was genuinely on the cards. Arms aloft, Marc Lièvremont’s French warriors progressed. Revenge for ’03 and ’07 defeats secured – a semi-final with Wales awaits. England meanwhile will rue what might have been, although had it been, then it would have been papering over cracks the size of the English Channel.
Many will undoubtedly ponder the logic of pairing Wilkinson and Toby Flood together for the first time in twenty months in such an important game. Former England international Dean Ryan has already added his two cents, querying the decision to abandon England’s conservative kicking game of the past twelve months in favour of an alien all-out running game. England were, almost, somewhat typically French in their appearance.
These above decisions were made and followed up by the bizarre call to only have two backs on the substitutes’ bench – scrum-half Richard Wrigglesworth and the versatile yet one-dimensional Matt Banahan. And that is before we even mention Haskell’s omission from the starting fifteen, despite having been England’s best player to that point in many commentators’ and pundits’ opinions.
There will no doubt be countless hindsight-influenced grievances for the English camp to digest after their disappointing demise, but in truth the tournament was not lost in just this one match. In many ways this was a defeat long overdue from earlier in the tournament.
The tournament-long omission of Flood at fly-half rankles. The Leicester man’s energy and creativity that so impressively helped navigate England to a joint-record victory over Australia last November and to four Six Nations wins this Spring have been sorely missed. Instead, bar their unsurprising ten-try mauling of minnows Romania in the group stages, England’s back line have struggled to spark into life under the laboured tutelage of 32-year-old Wilkinson. It has been a tournament-long conservative selection from Johnson, and one which cost England the scintillating momentum built up over the preceding twelve months. Wilkinson’s uncharacteristically wayward kicking has merely rubbed salt in gaping English wounds.
Ill-disciplined and turgid displays against a poor Scottish team and an Argentina side that has regressed since the last World Cup should have hinted that stiffer opposition would be likely to prove near insurmountable when encountered. Perhaps the memory of Irish-scotched Grand Slam dreams back in March warned that in the biggest of games, England’s current players – much like their footballing counterparts – cannot be counted on to deliver.
Whether the ill-discipline on the pitch – England had amongst the highest penalty count in the group stages, for instance – stems from the seeming ill-discipline off it (dare I say it, another trait shared with the footballers) is a matter that will no doubt generate many column inches in the coming days.
All-in-all the past month has been frustrating for all concerned with English rugby. Right from the announcement of a controversial all-black change strip, through the reported dwarf-throwing and Mike Tindall’s blonde-bombshell escapades, the lacklustre and error-strewn in-game performances, and up to the fitting denouement of conceding a penalty and watching helplessly as the ball and their hopes sailed away from the pitch, England have neither looked like a team likely to win the Rugby World Cup, nor a team capable of knuckling down off the pitch to achieve the desired results on it.
How much of that is the responsibility of the current management and coaching staff is a matter the RFU will no doubt investigate and act on if they deem appropriate in the coming months. For now though, Johnson does not entertain questions about his future and enjoys the backing of the dressing room. Whether he pays the price for England’s worst World Cup showing since 1999 remains to be seen. However, if it costs England the next generation of talented rugby players, disillusioned with ‘heroes’ more interested in chasing the beverages and the women than the ultimate prize in their chosen sport, then few will be forgiving.
Looking forwards to 2015, a side with dynamic ball-carrying forwards such as Lawes, Croft and Haskell, and a back-line littered with the likes of Ben Youngs, Flood, Manu Tuilagi, Ben Foden and Chris Ashton has to be encouraged to, and trained to, play with an attacking, ball-in-hand game plan. Martin Johnson’s current penchant for conservatism is unlikely to get the best out of what appears to be a talented group of rugby players, but that narrative is not yet written and will follow in due course.
One thing is for certain though – if England approach the next World Cup with the same attitude, carelessness and lack of intensity, then they can expect the same result: a melancholic exit far earlier than desired. Given the promising talent in the side and the fact that England are hosting that tournament, that would be one burdensome anti-climactic disappointment for all concerned. Who knows, perhaps this early exit at the hands of their Gallic foes might prove a blessing in disguise as far as England’s long-game is concerned…