France v England, Stade de France, Saturday, 8.0 - Live RTÉ2 & UTV
As Voltaire put it: "Life is a shipwreck, but we must not forget to sing in the lifeboats." The great French philosopher might just as well have been referencing Eddie Jones's England before their final leg of a hitherto unrewarding 2022 Six Nations voyage. Paris is never an easy place to go, let alone for sides whose title hopes have, in effect, already left the harbour on a P&O ferry.
Compared with France, seeking to seal their first grand slam since 2010, England have had a consistently turbulent passage since they initially embarked for a storm-lashed Scotland last month. Murrayfield misery has been followed by last week’s Twickenham tribulations, and now here they are, needing to beat Europe’s best side, in Paris, to avoid finishing in the bottom half of the championship for the second year in a row.
Keep singing, indeed. Lose by the length of the Champs-Élysées under the Stade de France floodlights and, Italy aside, the 2019 World Cup finalists will have managed just two wins (both at home) in eight Six Nations fixtures over the past two seasons. Against Scotland, Wales and Ireland this year they have scored a total of two tries. No wonder there is a sink-or-swim feel to their final fixture.
For all the talk of a brave new England, the same maddening structural and selectorial flaws continue to resurface
Either way, those who reappointed Jones for a second term as England’s head coach will be feeling twitchy. If France do win a slam, no England coach will have flown back with a more pot-holed championship record for 15 years. Admittedly England did win the 2020 title on the rebound from the World Cup but, with Jones’s squad having also finished fifth in 2018, the sense of underachievement relative to their resources is growing. For every forward step England take under Jones, they seem prone to taking two backwards.
Overly harsh? Not if you judge England as rigorously as they should be judging themselves. Yes, they were gallant with only 14 men in unenviable circumstances against Ireland, but the 4-0 try count in the visitors’ favour cannot simply be dismissed as one of those things. For all the talk of a brave new England, the same maddening structural and selectorial flaws continue to resurface.
The team picked for this game is a classic example. Is George Furbank really the best full-back in the land? Where is the specialist blinding pace out wide? Or a complementary midfield? Or someone whom poor Marcus Smith or Henry Slade can potentially use as a line-breaking foil? Lately England have basically been hiring a jazz quartet to go on tour with The Stranglers.
Of course England continue to be beset by injuries. A British and Irish Lions tour which stretched deep into August has clearly taken a significant toll. But it is the same for all the other home nations, who have mostly managed to make the best of it. For Jones to say, as he did this week, that he might be unable to field his best XV until next year’s World Cup will not greatly thrill the willing and available squad members over whom he presides.
Equally disingenuous was his claim last Monday that being Australian was somehow counting against him in England. "I don't think it helps being an Australian but that's part of the deal." Really? He never complained about the old "Wizard of Oz" headlines in happier days and there remain some decent cattle at his disposal: Smith, Slade, Maro Itoje, Ellis Genge, Sam Simmonds, Sam Underhill. used properly, all are top-notch operators who deserve much, much better.
Too many others, though, have been summarily discarded in the endless pursuit of something shinier or, usually, bigger. The guillotine treatment dished out to the highly talented Max Malins this week is the latest dispiriting case study. Even if England were somehow to win in Paris it will simply paper over the widening cracks.
But where is the rugby nous at the top of the Rugby Football Union to rectify the situation? How many companies in any industry would not even reprimand an employee who has written a book for personal gain in which he slags off certain members of his team for their lack of leadership aptitude? Listening to Jones publicly ducking responsibility the other day for what appeared under his name, choosing instead to try to throw his excellent ghostwriter under the bus, was the final straw.
It is all such a striking contrast to what is steadily building in France. England have sneaked to victory in the last two games between the sides, both of them decided by a close-range try in the closing moments, but Les Bleus are maturing fast. Fourteen of their XV also started the 40-25 win over New Zealand in Paris in November; it would have been 15 had hooker Julien Marchand not been injured.
In addition they have the best kicker in the tournament in Melvyn Jaminet, the best scrum-half, the most unyielding midfield and, collectively, a they-shall-not-pass mindset courtesy of their persuasive and relentlessly successful defence coach, Shaun Edwards. “He’s transformed them, hasn’t he?” acknowledged England’s attack coach Martin Gleeson, who know Edwards well. “They respect him 100 per cent and they’ll go to the trenches for him. No matter where he goes he seems to have success.”
Maybe England will find some joy elsewhere. They will hope to unsettle the French line-out, as Wales did, and cause problems aerially, but they will also have to subdue the most dynamic attacking threat they have yet confronted. France also have a tendency to score early and the home crowd will revel in every visiting error. With Jaminet around to punish any ill-discipline at the breakdown and the 8-9-10 combo of Grégory Alldritt, Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack growing in stature, England will have to take every half-chance they are given.
The South African referee Jaco Peyper will be another crucial figure but, assuming a red card is not shown to a French forward inside the first two minutes, something special will be required to ruin the grandest of French finales. Much water has flowed beneath the Pont des Arts since Les Bleus last won a slam, in 2010, but these days the French rugby public are falling back in love with their blossoming team. And England? As Voltaire perceptively put it: “The only way to truly see yourself is in the reflection of someone else’s eyes.” – Guardian
FRANCE: M Jaminet; D Penaud, G Fickou, J Danty, G Villière; R Ntamack, A Dupont (capt); C Baille, J Marchand, U Atonio; C Woki, P Willemse; F Cros, A Jelonch,G Alldritt .
Replacements: P Mauvaka, J-B Gros, M Haouas, R Taofifenua, T Flament, D Cretin, M Lucu, T Ramos.
ENGLAND: G Furbank; F Steward, J Marchant, H Slade, J Nowell; M Smith, B Youngs; E Genge, J George, W Stuart; M Itoje, N Isiekwe; C Lawes, S Underhill, S Simmonds.
Replacements: N Dolly, J Marler, K Sinckler, O Chessum, A Dombrandt, H Randall, G Ford, E Daly.
Referee: Jaco Peyper (South Africa)