England pass French test
Graham Jenkins at Twickenham
February 26, 2011
France flanker Imanol Harinordoquy clashes with England's Toby Flood © Getty Images
England are one step closer to their goal of reclaiming the title of the world's best team after passing a physically demanding and mentally gruelling test at Twickenham.
Martin Johnson's side remain some way from the finished article, and will not have their southern hemisphere rivals worried just yet, but this performance underlines their growing maturity and confidence in their own ability.
It may not have been the one-sided try-fest that was the mismatch against Italy, in fact it was a very close contest, but the desire to play was still there and England dictated much of the play as a result. Taking centre stage was a resolute defensive display that shackled the much-vaunted French backline and showed that this adventurous side also has a considerable backbone. Any side hoping to claim the sport's biggest prize will need to boast both traits so Johnson can sleep easy knowing he has the foundations in place for a major assault on the World Cup crown.
Not so long ago they would have lost such a game and that fact is a credit to the players and the coaching team who are clearly learning as they go. The physicality that was missing against the Springboks in November was at the heart of this battling display and the team as a whole showed they could think on their feet when France largely succeeded in shackling the England back division. Concerns remain including their penalty count and re-starts while they may have been guilty of trying to play too much rugby at times but the positive outweigh the negatives.
Captain Mike Tindall continues to impress as 'stand-in' leader in the continued absence of Lewis Moody. With the Gloucester veteran having rediscovered his best form since taking on the honour and with England's back-row in imperious form, there will be growing calls for the centre to continue in the role when Moody returns to the selection mix for the Scotland clash.
Tindall's industry helped set the tone for an outstanding defensive effort but he also loomed large with ball in hand. However, it was lock Tom Palmer who claimed the Man of the Match honour having put his body on the line time and time again in a lung-busting effort. His game was almost over before it had begun with a crunching hit leaving him dazed and confused but he shrugged off the blow to take a starring role.
Despite their sterling efforts the duo may well see team-mate Jonny Wilkinson steal many of the headlines. It is no secret that Wilkinson is class act - a class apart even - and he underlined his worth to this team with a superbly struck penalty with his first contribution to the game. That alone is impressive enough, but when you consider how difficult a kick it was, the significance in terms of the game, and the Championship, and the prospect of reclaiming the all-time Test points record you just have to stand and applaud the man - as the Twickenham crowd did in their thousands.
Although, perhaps it is Johnson himself who should accept the plaudits? It was his French counterpart Marc Lievremont who this week confessed his admiration of England's legendary war-time leader Winston Churchill, but Johnson may yet emerge as a fan having obviously delivered a rousing half-time speech of which the former Prime Minister might have been proud.
His side had gone toe-to-toe with a fired up France for a breathtaking 40 minutes that may have lacked quality but did not want in terms of commitment or bravery - from both sides. The hosts were good to their word and tried to 'give it a crack' as Johnson had promised but failed to dominate a French side that some had dared to write off as genuine title contenders. As a result Johnson's side entered the break on level terms, with their opponents very much in the contest having weathered what they thought was the best the hosts could offer.
Faced with arguably the most important team-talk of his tenure as England boss we can only assume he rallied his troops and demanded more from them. While the second-half may not have been 'their finest hour' it was suitably impressive, with each man happy to toil and give sweat and blood for the cause. A raised tempo soon brought reward in attack while there was increased intensity in defence that kept France scoreless and snuffed out their hopes time and time again. The result can go down as a major step in the squad's development and serve as yet further evidence that Johnson has his side simmering nicely ahead of the big one in September.
France could rely on the support of several thousand vociferous fans, who added to a cauldron-like atmosphere at England's HQ, they had to make do without one key player in the day's proceedings - Lady Luck. At least twice the bounce of the ball went against them in potentially game-changing scenarios - most notably when the ball evaded the grasp of centre Aurelien Rougerie with a try for the taking. There was little between the sides but there can be no doubt the better side won the day.
Very few sides will shackle the talent-heavy French back division and leave them to scramble for shots at goal but England did just that. Fewer sides still will be able to go head-to-head with their grizzled set of forwards and come off best, as England also did. As expected this was an improved French performance from that against Ireland, which earned a mere '4 out of 10' from Lievremont. There was more grunt up front and less charity in defence but they were outmuscled, out-thought and out-played.
England have learnt the lessons of their defeat in Paris a year ago when this youth-infused side took its first steps and a formidable side as a result. France may find that they learn more from this defeat than their previous two victories, but they are not the only ones who will envy England's power, skill and composure this evening.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum.
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