Record defeat to France symbolises just how far English rugby has fallen

Twickenham drubbing may be the rude awakening needed to alert the RFU to the full extent of the rot that has set in

It is 20 years since England became the first – and still only – northern hemisphere side to win a Rugby World Cup and some blunt home truths can no longer be ducked. If their record defeat in 113 years of hosting Test matches at Twickenham symbolised anything it was exactly how far English rugby has now fallen and how much it is going to take to restore the national team to former glories.

Maybe Saturday night is the rude awakening required to alert the English Rugby Football Union to the full extent of the rot that has set in, on and off the field. Because, increasingly, it does not seem to matter who is coaching England, which players they select, how they try to play or even the volume of noise made by their supporters. A bigger picture is now evident: English rugby needs saving from its bloated, short-sighted and underperforming self.

While it is probably the case that anyone would have finished second to a side playing as wonderfully well as France, the final 53-10 scoreline reflected the modern chasm that has opened up between the two nations. The difference in class at lock, number eight, scrumhalf and inside centre was particularly stark, as were England’s travails at the breakdown. Fail to improve markedly against Ireland, the world’s number one side, in Dublin this Saturday and another horror show will swiftly unfold.

But make no mistake. The fault lines run significantly deeper than simply the brilliance of Antoine Dupont, Grégory Aldritt, Thibaud Flament, Jonathan Danty and their musketeering confrères. Humility has not always been the primary trait associated with the RFU but bucketloads of it are now required, with English rugby in barely better shape these days than the beleaguered game in Wales. Without reform of the union’s priorities and structures, at least another decade in the wilderness awaits.


Never before at Twickenham, certainly, have so many Red Rose fans departed so prematurely. The early leavers missed France’s sumptuous last try, finished by Damian Penaud and so beautiful it could have been hung in the Louvre. But their patience had clearly snapped. Investing hundreds of pounds to watch England these days no longer guarantees the same smug halo of self-satisfaction it once did.

Some in the stands were also openly querying the wisdom in the RFU paying its chief executive £668,000 last year to preside over this deepening shambles. “Inert leadership” was the accusation made by the chairman of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport select committee in his report on Premiership rugby’s financial woes, and there is increasing pressure on those in positions of power to front up and explain why English rugby is imploding on their watch.

In no particular order, the talent pipeline has far too many kinks in it and the co-ordinated development of players between the ages of 17 and 23 remains a continuing area of frustration. The Premiership may have been fun to watch this season but it is no longer supplying England with ready-made Test quality forwards. At all levels the systems in place in France and Ireland are delivering better-quality players. On Friday night in Bath, France Under-20s beat their English counterparts 42-7 while Ireland U20s have just stuck 82 points on Scotland U20s.

Perhaps the most telling post-game moment at Twickenham was the pregnant pause when Owen Farrell was asked what could possibly be done to prevent England losing as many of the collisions against the Irish as they did against France. His momentary silence said it all. It is clearly impossible to conjure a Danty or an Alldritt out of thin air and certainly not overnight. “We need to look at the effectiveness we have in that contact area, to maximise the power that we have,” replied Farrell, eventually.

True enough, but it is not all about size. England’s pack on Saturday actually weighed more than France’s. The disparity was in the power-to-weight ratio at close quarters and the smartness with which Les Bleus probed for English weaknesses. Danty and Alldritt were strong but they were alert and artful as well. At scrumhalf Dupont’s little chips over the top repeatedly discomforted England, with long lineout throws, a greasy ball and the occasional wicked bounce doing the rest. Shaun Edwards has engineered many tactical triumphs and this was another.

It also extended what has become an English trend, regardless of whether Steve Borthwick or Eddie Jones is in charge. Remember the autumn? Until their late late flurry against New Zealand, England were 25-6 down at Twickenham against New Zealand entering the final 10 minutes. Against South Africa they were beaten 27-13. Against Scotland they conceded four tries and now, at their supposed fortress, France have racked up seven. Encouraging pre-World Cup form it is not.

For the fourth time in the past six years, England are also set to finish no higher than third in the Six Nations Championship table. For a country with their resources, it is not remotely good enough. Manu Tuilagi, Tom Curry, Courtney Lawes, Luke Cowan-Dickie and Johnny Hill can all supply extra punch but France’s craft, precision and organisation are on a different level.

And now to Dublin, with St Patrick’s Day and the Cheltenham Festival adding to an ominous brew. At such times you feel for the players, decent men all of them. International sport, though, is the most ruthless of jungles. And any fig leaves of optimism that were preserving English modesty have now been ripped away.

– Guardian