The countdown is well and truly on to the 2015 Rugby World Cup and England are running out of opportunities to fine tune their game and more importantly the style that former coach Sir Clive Woodward insist must make the rest of the world fear them. And if Stuart Lancaster’s side are serious about challenging for the sport’s biggest prize when the world comes to play next year then they need to be winning these games.
It could have been worse. England were rocked by the afore mentioned bounce of the ball in the opening stages of the game and found themselves two tries down in the opening quarter. Their Six Nations title challenge was hanging by a thread and a potentially disastrous and confidence-sapping result loomed – but they rose to this test of their character.
The power, ingenuity, guts and leadership shown by the likes of fly-half Owen Farrell, No.8 Billy Vunipola, lock Courtney Lawes and scrum-half Danny Care inspired a sensational comeback that propelled the visitors into a five-point lead with just five minutes remaining.
But they failed to close out a game, not for the first time, and saw their hearts broken by a last-gasp try from France’s Gael Fickou with Maxime Machenaud sealing the win for the hosts and their coach who were in desperate need of a win after a horrific 2013.
That superior desire was a factor on a fascinating evening in Paris, but lack of a killer instinct certainly contributed to England’s downfall. It is a weakness that threatens to haunt having failed to derail all-conquering New Zealand back in November from a winning position – just a few months after more alarming choking concerns surfaced in Cardiff during last year’s Six Nations finale.
Put simply, the No.1 ranked All Blacks, who continue to set the benchmark for everyone else, would not have lost a game from a similar position. Until England boast that same level of resilience and a similar strength of mind and body they leave themselves open to yet more agony in the future.
The forthcoming World Cup battle may take place on home soil but the away days between now and then – most notably a three-Test series in New Zealand this summer – are pivotal when it comes to forging the mental strength that will be required to sweep all before them in 2015.
This set back turns up the heat ahead of a trip to Murrayfield – the scene of more than one England stumble – this weekend with Lancaster under pressure to sooth and reinvigorate his side and address this mental baggage before it is allowed to fester.
Luckily for Lancaster, a review of this game will provide plenty of positives on which to focus. Aside from their courage and commitment to play at pace, some individuals shone through in the heat of battle.
Farrell shrugged off concerns about his attacking game by taking the ball flat and breaking the line while Care ended the debate over who is the most potent No.9 at Lancaster’s disposal with an electric display that could and perhaps should have been capped with a try. And if he is looking for mental resilience then he need look no further than debutant Jack Nowell who rallied from an inauspicious start to record a team-leading 87m with ball in hand.
Lawes and Vunipola made an equally emphatic impression up front and both were a menace with and without the ball. Vunipola in particular was a breath-taking force with 17 carries into the heart of the French – including a defence-splitting drive in the lead up to a try for Luther Burrell.
Many will draw a line between the withdrawal of Care and Vunipola midway through the second half and the final twist in this tale. The changes were clearly pre-planned and both players certainly deserved a breather following their Herculean efforts although fitness should not be an issue for anyone in the Elite Player Squad. The tactical switch paid off with replacement No.8 Ben Morgan carving a similar swathe through Les Bleus but stand-in No.9 Lee Dickson could not provide the same impetus as Care. It is a calculated gamble.
Experience may also be a factor with England relatively short of Test caps on which to draw and guide them home in such situations – and following the axing of fly-half Toby Flood, Lancaster’s squad certainly looks a little light of lieutenants.
With or without the veteran fly-half they remain on a learning curve and are far from the finished article. But at some stage they need to graduate and start handing out lessons themselves.
What was you view of the match? Were England naive at the end or did France just move up a gear? Comment below…