Disciplined England take another major step forward
England 23 France 13:The list of Grand Slam hopefuls who have flown too close to the sun and fallen to earth is long and distinguished but England’s supporters are running short of reasons to be pessimistic. Three wins out of three, only three tries conceded, a points difference of plus 36 and an impending home game against Italy is about as good as the ever-competitive Six Nations can offer.
The final fixture in Cardiff, with Lions tour places at stake, has a delicious tingle to it already.
Just as telling as the statistical positives is England’s growing habit of winning seriously heavy-duty Test matches without playing to their full potential. In Louis Picamoles, Thierry Dusautoir and the wonderful Wesley Fofana France had top individuals who performed somewhere close to their best. Yet as a team they rarely looked like knocking out opponents who are becoming impossible to outlast in the fourth quarter of games.
Mental strength? Fitness? Organisation? Desire? England are now displaying such qualities consistently, even on brass-monkey days like Saturday when fluidity proves elusive.
The big question now – not the worst problem to have – is whether rising anticipation of a first Grand Slam since 2003 will choke the minds of a still-developing team or bring out their ruthless killer instinct.
Tom Wood, up there with the captain Chris Robshaw and Manu Tuilagi as his country’s most influential performer, already has a clear sense of what lies in store.
“I guess you do have to entertain the fact there will be huge expectation,” admitted the Northampton backrow. “We’re going to have to be ready for the extra desire which comes with trying to rob the English of a potential party. If we get ahead of ourselves, then we’ll fall flat on our face.”
That is precisely what happened two years ago when England were thumped by Ireland in Dublin. Wood, however, is adamant the current team has a steelier mindset.
“I look around the huddle before a game and I think: ‘I’m glad he’s on our side.’”
Team captain Robshaw, was man of the match for the second game in a row and his dogged work-rate is certainly proving contagious. France were unable to maintain the headway they enjoyed before and after Fofana’s remarkable surge out of his own half past five attempted tackles.
By hauling off the destructive Thomas Domingo and replacing Francois Trinh-Duc with the out-of-sorts Frederic Michalak, Philippe Saint-Andre did his side few favours and sealed France’s worst start to a season for 31 years.
A fourth successive defeat in Ireland would make it their bleakest since 1957.
England did, admittedly, benefit from the refereeing of South Africa’s Craig Joubert who, after his sub-par performance in the 2011 World Cup final, will never be in danger of being borne shoulder-high through the boulevards of Paris. France were deeply unimpressed again here, correctly arguing England’s match-clinching 55th-minute try by Tuilagi should not have been allowed as Mako Vunipola was in an offside position when the ball cannoned into him off Wood’s boot at the preceding ruck.
Saint-Andre simmered with frustration but was big enough to concede his team had fallen away badly in the final 20 minutes and that England are a team on the up.
“They still have two games to go but they are confident and well-disciplined. Their discipline was much better than ours.”
Could Italy cause an upset? Based on previous results in London, it is about as likely as Silvio Berlusconi being elected Pope.
After that all roads would lead to the Millennium Stadium, with the title potentially already bagged on points difference. And as France can now testify, Lancaster’s England are not a team prone to fading in the final furlongs.