England last week took the extraordinary step of having a meeting with the country’s top referee Wayne Barnes. After spending time practicing defensive drills with 14 men in the last few weeks, it seems that Martin Johnson will try anything to arrest England’s woes.
Ten yellow cards in four matches. With 15 men on the field they have not had their try line breached, but have conceded 30 points while a man pays for their sins off the field. This is costing England matches.
While working with Barnes they deconstructed the 41 penalties that England has conceded in this Six Nations, as well as assessing the performance of Stu Dickenson. The simple fact is that England will be watched harshly.
While the analysis of their penalties were divided into three categories, acceptable, unacceptable and grey—any 50/50 call will invariably go against England.
For now, Johnson has not made an example of his men, although one could imagine the size of the veins on the former World Cup winning English captain’s forehead at post match briefings.
This may be the problem, although it is said that the squad was subjected to extra training runs as punishment at their recent camp in Yorkshire. But if these men are indeed the best England has to offer, Johnson can ill afford to drop players.
But really, England has lost the habit of winning. They have beaten only Italy and the Pacific Islands since the last Six Nations, and one could unleash all form of expletives on the state of this England team.
It is difficult to agree with Captain Steve Borthwick, who has said that England’s discipline issues are a thing of the past. But one could concur with the surprising optimism that is coming from the team and coaches alike.
England has scored eight tries this Six Nations, only one behind ladder leaders Ireland. Statistically, Johnson’s team knows how to attack. Against Ireland they made more attacking breaks and made far more ball carrying metres that the championship leader’s, and more than once opened up Wales supposed impenetrable defence.
All this is despite still not having settled on a first choice playmaker.
But it has been their defence that has recently caught the eye. They have conceded only three tries, the equal best record in the Six Nations, and have a tackle success rate well over 90 percent. Modern rugby is being won and lost by efficient defences, and no doubt England has this modus operandi.
Stop conceding poor penalties and this England team will start winning matches; it is a simple formula to be able to turn the corner.
Worryingly for England though, they face a team that may have already turned.
Quite simply, Les Bleus were magnificent against Wales in their last match. They proudly continued the chameleon styled tradition of the French, looking average at periods in the championship before the necessary injection of passion made them world beaters.
Led by Imanol Harinordoquy, the Tri colours back row had a match that you could record and play for any budding loose forward wanting to learn such arts.
When the French were not dominating the rucks, a brilliant spearheaded defence marshalled by their Panzar like centres all but completely shut down the vaunted Red Dragons attack.
But most impressive was the way they adjusted their game and field tactics. They quickly figured out the Welsh pattern of play and coordinated a match not so much based around their own style, but with the intention to completely shut the defending champions down.
The mark of class, and experience; understated throughout the tournament is that despite sporadic youth, this is indeed a team of French elder statesmen. Seven of the match squad are over 30.
Like England, question marks exist over their revolving door for their first five eighths, with neither team wielding a world class playmaker.
But outside of this, it is a team with plenty of menace. Sebastian Chabel has been selected in the back row, teaming with Harinordoquy and Thierry Dusautoir. This is combined with a solid tight five gives France a capable set piece.
Giant Stade Francais centre Mathieu Bastareaud continues at outside centre, while Francois Trinh-Duc will become Frances third standoff in their last four matches. Les Bleus will indeed be a daunting prospect for England if he supplies quality ball to a backline that drips with class.
While some have wondered about Marc Lievremont’s visions, it is clear that his grand plan is eventuating, and will start as favourites in what could be a classic match.
It is hard to believe that such grand foes—with history stretching back to 1906—are both ranked seventh (France) and eighth (England) in the world, the lowest ever for both sides since the IRB rankings began.
I expect a vastly improved English performance, and pick them to squeak a win over France and notch their third consecutive win over Les Bleus.
England V France, Sunday, Mar. 15
Referee: Stuart Dickinson (Australia)
HEAD TO HEAD: England 49, France 35, Draws 7
Last match: 23rd February 2008 - England 24, France 13 @ Stade de France
France: 15-Maxime Medard (Toulouse);14-Julien Malzieu (Clermont), 13-Mathieu Bastareaud (Stade Frangais), 12-Yannick Jauzion (Toulouse),11-Cedric Heymans (Toulouse); 10-Francois Trinh-Duc (Montpellier), 9-Morgan Parra (Bourgoin); 8-Imanol Harinordoquy (Biarritz), 7-Sebastien Chabal (Sale/ENG), 6-Thierry Dusautoir (Toulouse); 5-Jerome Thion (Biarritz), 4-Lionel Nallet (Castres, capt); 3-Sylvain Marconnet (Stade Frangais), 2-Dimitri Szarzewski (Stade Frangais), 1-Lionel Faure (Sale/ENG)
Replacements: Benjamin Kayser (Leicester/ENG), Thomas Domingo (Clermont), Louis Picamoles (Montpellier), Julien Bonnaire (Clermont), Sebastien Tillous-Borde (Castres), Florian Fritz (Toulouse), Damien Traille (Biarritz)