There can be no denying that England have narrowly escaped a major upset in their first game in 2017, and can be thankful to be heading to the Millennium Stadium to face Wales next Saturday with the defence of their title still in tact. Here are five things we’ve learnt from the game:
Since Eddie Jones replaced Stuart Lancaster following the dismal 2015 World Cup campaign, England have not lost a game. They have played some magnificent rugby over that time, epitomised by the 3-0 series whitewash of Australia in their own backyard.
This is all in the past however. Saturday’s first half performance was their “worst under Eddie Jones” according to former coach SirClive Woodward, on pundit duty during ITV’s coverage of the match. There is no evidence to the contrary, as England started slowly and never got into the game. There were errors all over the place and no rhythm to their play.
The second half was better in patches, largely due to the impact of players off the bench. The overriding emotion of the players at the final whistle was more relief than elation, but the momentum continues to build under Jones, and we can expect a big reaction against Wales next week.
This really is a massive victory; across all sport it is vital that you win when you’re not at your best if you want to be the best, and England did that.
Saturday went along way to showing how important certain players are to this England team; the absence of Chris Robshaw, George Kruis, Mako and Billy Vunipola in the pack was telling.
Kruis and the Vunipola brothers – along with lock Maro Itoje who was moved to flanker against France – have been integral to Sarcacens’ recent rise to the top of European rugby, and England’s unbeaten streak.
Their replacements are more than able, with the likes of Tom Wood and Joe Marler having earned 90 caps between them in national colours. In fact, England’s squad depth is the strongest in the tournament; the introduction of James Haskell and Danny Care sped up the play and created the chance for matchwinner Ben Te’o to go over in the 71st minute.
Yes, England are understrength and there’s little they can do about it, but previously second-string players must step up for the rest of the competition.
Despite being on the losing side, it was Northampton back-row Louis Picamoles who picked up the Man of the Match award for France. Were it to be given to an England player, Elliot Daly would have been my pick.
On a day where few enhanced their reputation, Daly had a very solid game on the wing. A try-saving tackle on opposite number on Virimi Vakatawa before nearly scoring himself saw him match an explosive winger who has lit up the World 7s Circuit in recent times.
Daly’s most important contribution however was his long-range penalty kick to put England level at 9-9, giving the home side a real psychological boost going into half time. His record penalty for Wasps currently stands at 59 metres, a phenomenal distance. In tight games Daly’s left foot could be the difference.
Looking ahead to next weekend, I’d like to see Daly retain his place but Jack Nowell to come in for Jonny May on the other wing – it was suggested Nowell was benched against France after missing training for personal reasons.
It’s not all that uncommon that we write France off the Six Nations title before a ball has been kicked. Many pundits expect the French to be battling Italy for the wooden spoon than competing for silverware this year.
Judging by Saturday’s performance, ‘Les Bleus’ should not be taken lightly. Led by captain Guilhem Guirado and the impressive Picamoles, the French pack were physically superior and posed a real challenge for England at set pieces.
The match stats also provided evidence of an improving French back line, even without talisman Wesley Fofana. Making ten line breaks (double England’s tally) and 591 metres overall (208 metres more than England), the French will be disappointed to have only scored the one try. Full back Scott Spedding caught the eye in particular, proving hard to pull down when running from deep.
Rugby Union’s recent rule changes gave referee Angus Gardner no option but to brandish a yellow for card for England’s May in the 12th minute for a tackle on France’s Gaël Fickou. To the neutral, it seemed harsh; there was no malice or intent to hurt the player.
However, Fickou’s legs were taken ‘above the horizontal’ before he landed on his shoulder, meriting a yellow. Had the French centre landed on his head, May would have been given his marching orders and England would have been left to play nearly 70 minutes of the game a man down.
France scored just the one Camille Lopez penalty during the 10-minute sin bin period, but against better teams, England will be made to pay. One moment of poor technique or timing in the tackle can be detrimental, and England must make sure they keep their discipline over the next few weeks.
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