Second rate England get what they deserve
Graham Jenkins at Eden Park
October 8, 2011
England captain Lewis Moody reflects on his side's Rugby World Cup exit © Getty Images
Delon Armitage Chris Ashton Mark Cueto Imanol Harinordoquy Dylan Hartley Marc Lievremont Nicolas Mas Morgan Parra Mike Tindall Dimitri Yachvili
England's disappointing Rugby World Cup campaign came to an abrupt end against France at Eden Park on Saturday night and they can have no complaints.
An error-laden and slipshod performance got what it deserved - nothing. Lacking cohesion, precision and heart, England were sent packing by a side that just last week were given a lesson by that well-known rugby powerhouse - Tonga.
France embarrassed them with a hunger fitting of the occasion and they delighted in bullying a rival that was clearly not up to the task and that has gone backwards since lifting the Six Nations title earlier this year. Under intense pressure from a French side clearly determined to write a few wrongs, what little form England had conjured in four flattering pool stage victories evaporated shortly after anthems had died down and did not return until it was too late.
England were trumped at every turn in the opening stanza during which they showed a complete inability to deliver in the heat of battle. A pack that was supposed to be a formidable force was out-muscled, a set-piece considered a major strength crumbled and a limited attacking mindset struggled to live up to that modest billing.
Indiscipline cost England dear once again and that failure to be able to handle the pressure and go toe-to-toe with an opponent who they know better than most was compounded by endless handling errors and in many cases just bad decisions and plain awful execution in defence and attack. Quite simply, England gift-wrapped this game for France and all that was missing was a pink bow decorating Eden Park.
If you see any televisions flying out of Auckland hotel windows in the next few hours you can probably bet that it is England manager Martin Johnson airing his frustration at the ease at which France were able to build a match-winning lead. No side with serious intentions of lifting the Webb Ellis Cup should be conceding soft scores and while England's defensive record in the pool stages hinted that there was a solid foundation for a run at the title a French side posing infinitely more attacking options than any of their previous opponents exploded that myth.
You simply cannot afford to gift any side a significant advantage in a game such as this and expect to still be in the contest come the final whistle. Especially when that side is in dire need of any encouragement with which to fan their feint flame of hope. England's latest slow start poured petrol on it and allowed France to claim a vital foothold in the game and married with their impressive endeavour fired the unlikeliest of French revolutions.
The Jonny Wilkinson-Toby Flood experiment that Johnson insisted was not a gamble had limited success such was France's suffocating dominance at the all important gain line. So many chances that were created were butchered in sight of the line and that was always likely to prove costly. Only when France began to tire as a result of their epic efforts and with Flood switched to the fly-half did England spark back into life. Why England have to wait to the point where they are chasing a game before throwing off the shackles and playing with breath-taking adventure is a mystery to rival the Bermuda Triangle.
The only other player to emerge with any credit from this game is centre Manu Tuilagi. The 20-year-old was England's only attacking threat and repeatedly hammered the French defence but sadly lacked any real support. His star continues to rise but you have to question England's long term planning if such a pivotal role is filled by a young man with just six Test caps to his name and who is only his first season of senior rugby.
This game will haunt England and certain individuals for some time to come. You wonder whether many of them appreciate the stage they are playing on? Maybe they assume success is a given and that there will be other World Cups so if this one slips out of our grasp so be it. If so, maybe this defeat will serve as a wake-up call - albeit too late for this campaign and too late for a raft of senior players who have closed out their international careers on this low note.
In contrast, France suddenly appear alive and kicking once again having looked ready to implode earlier this week. No side has won a World Cup after losing one game - let alone two - but no side will be taking them easily from this point on.
France stole the initiative with an energetic and forthright opening that belied their recent woes on and off the field and they bravely held onto it to claim a famous win. At the heart of that performance was a superb back-row trio of captain Thierry Dusautoir, Julien Bonnaire and Imanol Harinordoquy who patrolled the pitch like a pack of wolves. And their game-defining contribution allowed scrum-half Dimitri Yachvili to torment England yet again with boot and ball while centre Aurelien Rougerie rivalled his industry. Big games call for big performances and in this case France's reputation - not just their World Cup - was on the line so we should not be surprised that they fronted up so impressively.
The two coaches cut contrasting figures in the wake of the game. France coach Marc Lievremont was understandably beaming ear to ear just a few days after appearing to admit he had 'lost' the squad. Destined to part company with the team at the conclusion of the World Cup, win or lose, his future now looks a little brighter at least. The same cannot be said for Johnson whose failure to inspire anything remotely resembling a world-beating side over the last four years could prove costly when his position is reviewed in the comings days and weeks.
Given the best part of four years and blessed with the Rugby Football Union's unrivalled resources he has failed quite spectacularly to fashion a side capable of beating the rest of the world. That brutal fact may lead to Johnson taking the decision out of the hands of his employer but he may be encouraged to stay with RFU opting for stability rather than more upheaval before the world comes to play in England in 2015.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.