No doubt French coach Marc Lievremont would have very much liked to raise a sarcastic eyebrow towards those who doubted his grand plan, as he toasts a Les Bleus Grand Slam.
Most thought that the crazed strokes of Lievremont’s scheme resembled more an abstract piece by noted American Jackson Pollock—all too expressive, and lacking the required graceful work that a French artist would construct over time.
Yet to continue in the same artistic theme, it seems that Les Bleus are evolving into a masterpiece of the highest order, something that French impressionists such as Claude Monet and Paul Cezanne would be proud of.
For the rugby of Lievremont’s France is very much in the style of an impressionist piece, thriving on the insertion of movement, differing angles, and a sublime blend of elegance yet visual power that has given the Tricolours the first claim to be a World Cup threat—even this far off from the 2011 tournament.
We bear witness to a French team that is very good, but still missing one or two intangible qualities that would define them as great.
Against England, foremost was mental fortitude, as much like the All Blacks have a tendency to be spooked against France, so Les Bleus seems to panic when faced with the stark white of the Red Rose.
But such qualities can improve over time, and with continued results.
And from here, England and Martin Johnson, who against all odds finished with a respectable two points of the best team in Europe in their most hallowed fortress, must learn their own lessons.
There has been much criticism of England, and after watching them break free of their shell in Paris, one must wonder how much of the condemnation has been deserved.
Talk of flamboyance and lack of attacking enterprise will always be leveled against the side, but over time, England’s greatest power has been their ability to play it tight, brutal, and hard.
A gay running attack as witnessed against France last year is the exception rather than the rule, and while everyone likes to see a team play with ball in hand, it is not characteristic of the English game.
They rarely practice such play in the fields of the Guinness Premiership, whereas the All Blacks, possibly the greatest ball-in-hand attackers of the world’s test sides, regularly practice their glorified touch rugby in the Super 14 (if detractors are to be quoted).
But more to the point, it is not attribute attached to an England ran by Johnson, with his pro-Leicester management team.
He shall create in His own image.
But the second most spoken of criticisms is the almost stubborn refusal to blood new players, even in the face of incumbents struggling horribly with their form.
Northampton’s Ben Foden proved to be the spark that most expected him to be, and whether Johnson was correct in claiming “we did a good job of managing him into Test rugby,” the reality is that another player for the future has been unearthed.
However, the immediate challenge for England is to maintain talent that is exposed.
While Lawrence Dallaglio’s attack on Rob Andrew and the Rugby Football Union may have been inelegantly put forward, considering England eventually saw the light with a strong performance at the Stade de France, his point was sound.
Delon Armitage and Riki Flutey were uncovered as geniuses at the end of last year’s Six Nations, and were promptly feted—when injured—as the recovering saviours while missing in England’s autumn campaign.
But neither has fired since returning, and that is indicative of a setup that doesn’t really appear to internally nurture their young and growing talent.
England has been given a “Les Bleus-print” by Lievremont, and Johnson (for now) will revel in the fact that he, like his French counterpart, has the support of the establishment.
But while the French Slam has won back the partisan Tricolours supporters, Johnson and a legion of white clad fans are separated by frustration. Why he can’t see what we discuss every day, they would no doubt murmur when leaving the grand stands of Twickenham.
France has endured a difficult two years to build to where they are, and for every positive result—until now—there has been a wounding defeat. This is where England has been, and still is. They too have time to create their own masterpiece; whether the painters present can do it is something only results will prove.
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