Martin Johnson’s England side are the envy of the Northern Hemisphere at the moment. It has been quite a while since that was the case. The French, Irish and Welsh have all excelled while England have floundered around the lower echelons of international rugby, unsure of what to do next.
It hasn’t happened over night, but England now look capable of competing with the best in the world. Whether it has come too late for England’s World Cup charge remains to be seen. Sean Fitzpatrick believes it is.
“The Chris Ashtons, Ben Fodens and Ben Youngs of this world should perhaps have been playing a year earlier – they should have been given their chance sooner.”
But, simply put, England weren’t ready for their likes yet. Why have three of the finest player’s England have produced since the 2003 World Cup if the team simply couldn’t accommodate them? England’s style was lumbering, they played with restriction, took the ball in to contact too often and refused to play the situation.
The likes of Matthew Tait and James Simpson-Daniel suffered this fate; written off as useless in rugby shirts despite their obvious talent because the men around them couldn’t provide them with enough clean attacking ball. Watch a replay of the 2007 World Cup final for what Tait is capable of, yet he remains on the periphery of the squad.
It is no surprise that England’s success came hand in hand with a change in mentality. Of course the change is driven by players like Chris Ashton and Ben Youngs, but the spark must come from above them, the management.
Fast forward from their genesis moment against Australia and the England Six Nations shirt sits proudly atop of the table after two games. A word of warning here, England were in the same position last time round. Having beaten Wales and Italy, they didn’t win a single game from then on. But this time is different. There is just a small matter of France to deal with.
France have been what you expect from any French rugby side; inconsistent. The flair on display against Scotland, especially in the loose, was spectacular. All four of their tries came from stolen Scottish ball as the bamboozled a scrambling Scottish defense. Against Ireland they would have been lucky to escape with a slight loss, let alone a victory. Outscored 3-1 in the try stakes, Irish mistakes pushed France over the finishing line. Their forwards looked laconic, and it was only the excellent kicking of Morgan Parra that kept them in touch with the Irish. Against England, they will not be able to get away that a performance like that.
England have a new found strength in their back-row forwards who will put France to the sword if given an opportunity. Tom Palmer and James Haskell have been outstanding so far, while new boy Tom Wood has more than held his own. With Captain Lewis Moody looking likely to return for the game, France will face a tough time securing good, quick ball for their enigmatic backs to run amok.
England v France is always a game worth watching, even during England’s dark days. That they now have a backline to rival the French in terms of flair and attacking intent mean this game has the potential to explode. Traditionally a forward driven game, it may continue to be so for different reasons. Whatever pack can secure the ball best for their back-line to strut their stuff will win, simply put. Both Parra and English fly half Toby Flood are excellent kickers, while England may just edge it in the line-out. Just don’t write off the French yet, who knows what they are capable of.