England’s World Cup warm-up match against France in the Stade de France on Saturday was meant to be a reassertion of the strength in depth of Stuart Lancaster’s England squad with three weeks left until the opening match of the Rugby World Cup. Last week a largely second-string side, including several players making their international debuts, battled past France with the strength of their backline attack overcoming some clear weaknesses in the pack. The plan this week was for the majority of what must surely be considered Lancaster’s first team to return and couple the newfound attacking prowess of the backline with the traditional power of England’s forwards. That was the vision.
The reality was that England were so brutally overpowered up front, in the set pieces and at the breakdown, that they were starved of possession and unable to launch any meaningful attacking moves. Indeed, France enjoyed so much possessions that it took until after the 25 minute mark for England to force the French tackle count into double figures. It is not that England lacked opportunity, they just lacked the ability to take their chances they were given. Lineouts were stolen by the French, throws sent in not straight and catches knocked on in the air. The scrum was little better. England did win a few scrum penalties but on several occasions they were powered over by the French and conceded penalties themselves. The problems continued at the breakdown where England, for the first time in recent matches, seemed to struggle without an out and out openside flanker. The pack’s collective mission of forcing turnovers too often led to cheap and unnecessary penalties. Dan Cole, usually so effective at winning turnovers, twice conceded two easily kickable penalties at the breakdown, and he was not the only offender.
The final score-line, 25-20, is flattering for England and masks the scale of their defeat in most areas of the game. But with the World Cup so close, is it time to panic? No. That the final score was so close is testament to two important attributes of this England team: its doggedness and its attacking flair. If England rediscover their strength up front then they should be well and truly back on course.
England are undoubtedly an inexperienced test side and that is something which will count heavily against them in the competitive atmosphere of the World Cup. However, they are never an easy side to beat, particularly at home as they will be this World Cup. During Lancaster’s tenure England have lost only once by more than one score at Twickenham. The cabbage patch is, once again, the fortress that England supporters have longed for it to become. The atmosphere at Twickenham has regained its liveliness and tempered aggression which can drive the England team on.
Part of the difficulty in beating England comes from the team’s new determination and ability to play a flowing and attacking brand of rugby most clearly evidenced in England’s 6 Nations 55-35 victory over France. Even in Saturday’s match England managed to unleash their attacking potential when, for the last ten minutes they finally asserted themselves up front resulting in two superb tries. This was a direct consequence of powerful carrying from the forwards who drew the French defence in tight as well as effective rucking to quickly recycle the ball. This allowed George Ford to implement training ground moves and gave the likes of Mike Brown and Jonathan Joseph just that little bit of extra space to play with.
We must hope that Saturday’s performance was a wake-up call for the players and coaches. If it serves as the warm up that it ultimately was and kicks whole setup back on course, then come the 31st October, it is not unrealistic to expect England at least to be lining as finalists in the World Cup.