Back in December, ahead of the Autumn Nations Cup final at Twickenham, the joyous France revival under Fabien Galthie was heralded in these pages for having finally brought the bite back to the ‘Le Crunch’, writes Gavin Mairs.
The dashing advances made by Les Bleus since their quarter-final World Cup exit in Japan suggested the European game was poised for another period of Anglo-French dominance not seen since the turn of the century, when England and France shared seven of the first eight Six Nations titles. Even that ANC final backed up the hyperbole, as a callow French side almost snatched victory against the most experienced side England had fielded.
Since that day, the two sides have moved in very different directions. While France have maintained their steep upward trajectory – recording impressive back-to-back Six Nations wins before their enforced hiatus after a Covid-19 outbreak – England have regressed. After a woeful defeat to Scotland and a chaotic one to Wales, a loss today would represent England’s worst Six Nations return since 2018, with the trip to Dublin next weekend still to come, and the gap to France is beginning to yawn wide.
Back in the autumn, Eddie Jones, the England head coach, captured beautifully the essence of the progress made under Galthie and his formidable coaching team that has been girded by the impactful forthrightness of one of Wigan’s finest sons, Shaun Edwards, their defence coach.
Jones sees France has benefited from bolting on a structure that allows them to unleash their traditional flair – but now once they are deep in their opponents’ half.
“They are a very well-coached, very well-drilled team that plays a certain pattern,” said Jones. “They have a long kicking game, high kicking game, they don’t play anything in their half, but once they get in your half, they try to create situations where they can play like they are in the park.”
“You go to France and you see kids playing touch, like you see them in New Zealand, they like to play off the speed of the ball and they like to play off momentum and when (Antoine) Dupont gets momentum around the ruck he is very dangerous.”
“So for me, they have been able to create a modern version of their olden days when they played with width and a certain amount of freedom. They have been able to capture that into the modern game very smartly and very brightly. It’s a really good credit to their coaching staff and players about how disciplined they are.”
Such a glowing tribute however only serves to hold up a mirror to England’s alarming lack of progress since December. Are England in position to provide enough of their own bite to Le Crunch?
England’s discipline has been so poor – 41 penalties conceded in their opening three rounds – that they have had to bring in two referees this week to help improve their decision-making and communication.
Of greater concern however is that while Jones has so far stuck by the core of England’s World Cup final side in the hope that they will rediscover their form, Galthie has been fast-tracking his World Cup planning.
The defeats by Scotland and Wales have effectively ended England’s hopes of defending their Six Nations title, yet the imperative now for Jones’ side is to reboot and reassert themselves and, in the process, land a psychological blow on France.
There were passages of play in the defeat by Wales when England looked back to their potent best and yet, ultimately, they were well beaten again.
The challenge on Saturday is to rid themselves of the ruinous penalty counts and instead build the pressure on a France side who tend to establish their match-winning platforms before the final quarter.
Containing Dupont, who is as compelling as he must be a nightmare to defend against, will be key although Maro Itoje, England’s leading scrum-half disruptor, cannot afford another repeat of his five-penalty concession in Cardiff.
It is encouraging at least that Jones has finally begun shuffling his deck, and what a stage it is for Max Malins to make his first start at full-back.
It is a huge opportunity too for Luke Cowan-Dickie and Charlie Ewels, who will be asked to ease the line-out load on Itoje. The return of Ollie Lawrence to the bench is also cause for optimism, at least to give England the option of a different attacking option in the second half. Lawrence should have started against Italy and there was an argument that he should have started on Saturday, but at least he should be given more time on the ball than he has on his previous three starts.
“I’ve been really impressed by his desire to improve,” said Jones. “I’ll give you one area: he’s gone from 96kg in bodyweight to 99kg. His skinfolds have come down by 15 per cent. So he’s got himself in much better physical condition and then there’s been other parts of his game where he’s worked really hard to improve. I couldn’t be more pleased with his progress.”
The big unknown is how the postponement of their game against Scotland because of the Covid outbreak will affect France. You can argue it either way, only France have the answer, but you sense that Edwards at least will have them fired up and seeking revenge for the ANC final defeat.
The option of prioritising results ahead of a post-World Cup transition has so far backfired for England. Yet if ever there was one result to re-establish England’s order, it is winning Le Crunch. Assez dit.