England returned to Twickenham looking to back up last week’s victory in Ireland with victory in Le Crunch against a French team who fell apart in the second half against Wales. If anyone was wondering before kickoff which French team would turn up and if England could continue to play like last week then they didn’t have to wait long, as Jonny May went over for a try within 2 minutes. The Leicester winger crossed for 2 more before the half hour mark and Henry Slade earned England the bonus point before half time, a Morgan Parra penalty and Damian Penaud try on the counter the only answer the French could muster. They couldn’t even manage a point in the second half while England extended their lead via Owen Farrell and a penalty try, to finish 44-8.
England’s performances so far this Six Nations are a light-year away from last year’s tournament. This time last year – or even potentially in the Summer and Autumn Tests – there were question marks over who would be the starter in a number of positions, especially the backs. Now, it is likely only injuries and players returning from injury that will alter that starting pack, while in the backs the lack of chance being given to Dan Robson suggests that Ben Youngs (who is finding his form again) will be the starting 9, the midfield combination of Farrell, Tuilagi and Slade look like they have been playing together far longer than 2 matches and Jonny May and Elliot Daly look nailed on in the back 3 with Chris Ashton and Jack Nowell likely fighting for the 14 shirt. Suddenly this team looks settled and firing on all cylinders and they look like they could be pushing for a World Cup semifinal again.
Against France, England continued the in your face defence that troubled Ireland, with Courtney Lawes managing to knock even Mathieu Bastareaud backwards, while the England attack added a new facet to its game this week by a pinpoint kicking game. Time after time they turned the French defensive live and sent the back 3 scrambling across the pitch with a cleverly placed kick, with 2 of May’s tries, Farrell’s try and the penalty try all coming directly from the kick chase, while it was a kick behind that put England on the French try line for Henry Slade’s try. They found a weakness in the French game and fully exploited it for the victory.
The worry for other teams must be that this team does not even yet appear to be at its dangerous best. Eddie Jones commented that they left 15-20 points on the field and I think that is a fair assessment as there were a few times in the second half that they appeared to force things too early rather than work an opportunity by going through the phases. They will also be disappointed by how easily Yoann Huget was able to break through out wide for Penaud’s try, but with 2 weeks now until they take on Wales (the only other team still capable of the Grand Slam) I’m sure they will be confident in their ability to take another step forward.
This France team has so many talented players, yet they have failed to do anything of real note in the last 3 halves of rugby now. If the second half capitulation against Wales (complete with the story that Sébastien Vahaamahina had been made captain following their substitutions) did not make the running of the teams already look like a shambles, then this week certainly did.
Wholesale changes were made with only a few due to injury, while both of France’s starting wingers were technically centres, so it is no real surprise England found it easy to catch them out of position in the kicking game. The French centres have such a range of playing styles (consider the difference between Bastareaud and last week’s starter Romain Ntamack), France cannot continue to play the same tactics from one week to another with completely different personnel. Morgan Parra was probably one of France’s best players in the opening 40 as he went to-to-toe with Ben Youngs in the tactical kicking game but he was replaced early in the second half by Antoine Dupont who arguably opened up gaps with his sniping around the fringes but did not have the ability to control the game and put France in the right areas of the pitch. Not only that but the French were throwing on their subs so early in the second half in an attempt to do something vaguely good, the whole thing smacked of desperation.
The French have a habit of getting things together just in time for the World Cup ready to put a strong run together, but honestly right now the thought of them even making it out of their pool seems laughable considering they will likely need to beat at least one of Argentina or England in order to do so.
Change is needed. Not just with the man in charge but the entire mentality. Half the squad cannot be changed each week or no chemistry will build up. If France can get consistency in their selection, they will be a real danger. Until then, they should consider 4th in the tournament a success.
Cool it down
Kyle Sinckler has firmly taken hold of the number 3 shirt for England, but he has to be careful. He has developed well as a scrummager and is a wrecking ball with deceptively good handling skills in the loose, but he does have to watch out for his temper.
Last week he did a great job of getting under Peter O’Mahony’s skin and rattling the Irishman, but this week he got himself in trouble after an incident where he appeared to try and rip the scrum cap off Arthur Iturria’s head. Sinckler appeared to be arguing that Iturria was the instigator with an action not seen on the replay, but regardless of this, Sinckler has developed somewhat of a reputation as a hot-headed player. Obviously I don’t want him to take away from his style of play, but he just needs to be careful to not get himself in trouble with the referee as a penalty (or worse, a card) at the wrong time could prove crucial in a match.