Twickenham is a grand day out and on Sunday it was a sea of France and England fans in high good humour and awash with expectations. The Bollinger and Guinness tents were heaving and the sun was threatening to come out. All set up then for another historic ‘Le Crunch’ game? Sadly not - as Les Bleus sad to say were pretty shambolic. Whilst showing flashes of sublime skills they were thoroughly outplayed, and outthought, by a totally dominant England side. The coaching seemed non existent and there were not enough leaders out on the pitch to extract any kind of control on the game.
England in sharp contrast were wonderful again with Jonny May showing absurd skill and pace down his wing and polishing off a hat trick in the first half. The once slightly headless chicken has developed into one of the most all round wingers in the world. His team are now finding ways to get the ball to him particularly in situations where he can use his pace and at the moment the little kick behind are paying off - and some. Although for the French defenders to allow what was substantially the same try to be scored three times is head scratching to say the least.
Farrell’s tactical kicking and game awareness was outstanding and it looks like Youngs raises his game playing with Faz next to him. The forward pack yet again marauded around the field smashing Frenchmen back in the collisions but also casually demonstrating a whole collection of delicate handling skills including one brilliant mis-pass from tighthead prop Kyle Sinckler which led to a try. Never happened in my day……
England are a seriously good side who have shown last week was no fluke just based on vigorous stirring of the emotional pot which then somehow caught the Irish napping. They have followed up one big performance with another one which is a harder than you think and France just could not get in the game. Looking at this England team now you cannot spot a weakness which is a game changer for the squad and for the World Cup.
Maybe it was never going to work for the French coach Jacques Brunel – two centres on the wing and a winger at full back does sound left field even for our Gallic cousins. But we were all secretly hoping it would and that France would miraculously click and play somewhere close to the first half in Paris - when they looked a genuine threat and built up a lovely 16 point lead over a much fancied Wales. Their problem at Twickenham was work rate and desire coupled with the lack of an obvious game plan to counter England’s kicking game. You have to wonder whether any analysis was actually done by the French coaching team!
Young Damien Penaud is a lovely player and actually caused the England defence problems when he set off on some mazy runs. He was not helped defensively by his other equally inexperienced members of the back three who demonstrated some typical insouciance when it came to doing the hard yards. It is not a popular view in France but I would seriously be looking at bringing in an overseas coach. French rugby has fallen behind the rest of the Tier 1 nations. Their political infighting would rival House of Cards in the Machiavellian stakes and it is partly language and partly an insular approach to the game which is also holding them back. Fresh thinking, new methods, better sports science and more structured pathways are obvious fixes and for the sake of this wonderful Six Nations tournament let’s hope Bernard Laporte and his cohorts in the French Federation have got a masterplan somewhere to get their once proud rugby nation back where it belongs. England v France used to be such a massive fixture that was always played for with pride and passion on both sides.
The mass substitutions predictably slowed the game down in the second half and for the 82k fans packed into Twickenham all the tension and drama slowly seeped away as it looked increasingly impossible for France to rouse themselves into some kind of stirring comeback. I was a little saddened to see Dan Robson as the only sub left on the bench with the clock ticking down and the bonus point victory long ago in the bag. If Ben Youngs trips over in the opening minutes of the Wales game Eddie Jones may wish he had given Dan a bit more of a run out. When he did get out for the final ten minutes he showed some classy skills with a lovely quick and accurate pass and in defence he was excellent.
Whether by luck or judgement, and I suspect mostly judgement, Eddie Jones has shaped an England side that have to now be taken very seriously as one of the contenders in the World Cup. Ireland and Wales although not convincing so far in this Six Nations will also be in a great shape when they arrive in Japan and if Scotland with their small squad manage to have most of them fit they will, as we know, be able to pose threats to some big name sides. As for the French they look in freefall right now so it is anyone’s guess how they will go. Rumours of player revolts and criticism of the coaching have surfaced so we could see a new guy at the helm in Japan.
Ireland I also believe will be gaining momentum and overcoming what was always going to be a fired up Scotland gives them as good a chance as anyone of winning the Championship. Italy are up next for Ireland where you just have to back them to take 5 points and then they only have to overcome Wales away and a feeble France at home. Irish eyes could still be smiling come the end of the tournament.
Scotland will be so disappointed with their game this weekend where they had many chances to win. A perennial problem for the Scots is finishing off some of their brilliant backs moves against really good defences. With their pack suffering some big injury losses particularly in the back row you could see they lacked some physicality and were forced into playing only one way. Master magician that he is Finn Russell can’t do it all and the Irish defended superbly.
All eyes are now turning to Cardiff for a seismic clash between England and Wales on 23rd February. The big lad Mako Vunipola is out for 10 weeks leaving a 120kg shaped hole in the front row and one down in the backs! Luckily England now have a very able replacement in Ben Moon who was absolutely on point in the Autumn Internationals and scrummaged masterfully. Maro Itoje another injured star of the team was replaced by Courtney Lawes and the best compliment you can give him is we did not miss Itoje. Lawes was sensational. So despite those couple of missing players England will be in good shape for their visit to Cardiff and whatever the result will want to continue with the level of performance they showed in the first two games.
Wales, I do not think anyone doubts, will be much, much better and Gatland will have the boys fully prepped and ready to be unleashed. The Underdog status which seems to be passed around to a different team after every game – will be firmly claimed by Wales. We all know, however, with their best team out and the motivation of beating England at the Millennium they will not lack in intensity and emotional energy to go with their talent. The disjointed Italy performance and slow start in Paris will not matter one jot if they get this win and quite rightly they will then look for a clean sweep.