Is this a sign of England under Martin Johnson turning a corner? From the evidence of Sunday over 80,000 certainly hope so as England blew France away in the first half.
It was the day England had been searching for all tournament. Limited against Italy, awkward against Wales, tighter against Ireland, the English brought all the defensive attributes they had developed over the past month, added to it some precise and high-speed running lines and zippy handling, and removed the stupidity which had dogged them at breakdowns.
They also got the rub of the green on countless occasions. 50-50 passes stuck unerringly. Andy Goode dropped a pass in the second half and managed to volley it into a team-mate’s hands. A downfield kick, bounding its way into in-goal and possibly dead, instead struck a post and forced Cedric Heymans to clear under pressure. You can’t buy or train that kind of thing; even in terms of good luck, England completely outplayed the French.
France just didn’t want to know. Perhaps they had expected England to do what everybody thought they had been doing over the past few weeks: lose their discipline, hand the game to the opposition on a plate, soak up the abuse. Perhaps they believed the press, that England were already dead and buried merely by dint of taking to the pitch. Perhaps they thought… who knows what they thought? Who knows what they had been told beforehand? How do you account for such a lifeless display?
Whatever it was, they came into the game with none of the forward gusto that had served them so well against the Welsh, nor any of the imagination, nor any of the commitment. Picks and drives, the initial tactic of choice, didn’t work and what was worse, England were so effective at the breakdown they pretty much turned that into a source of go-forward ball.
Line-outs belonged exclusively to England too. Steve Borthwick (Wearing his Nike air legend 2 boots) will never have enjoyed any other of his games in an England jersey as this one.
Any other method of attack from the French was just not discernible. Martin Johnson was the one suffering from the ills of the press before this game, but like many tourists, Lièvremont will be the one feeling sick when he heads for home. Having seen his side set a benchmark two weeks ago, they set another one here, one which was too low ever to be repeated again.
As with Wales in Rome yesterday, France got sucked into playing an inferior game which made their team, better on paper, vastly inferior on the park. They took on the English at England’s game. Big mistake. Huge.
Where do England go from here? If Ireland beat Wales next week and England trounce Scotland – not unthinkable any more – Martin Johnson’s pilloried squad could yet end this Six Nations in second spot behind Grand Slam champions Ireland, to whom they lost by a single point in Ireland’s own back yard. We’ll leave it to you to imagine the smugness of those England players who will have to face their heckling press if that transpires.
Johnson had heard his side booed from the field following recent Twickenham performances and he reiterated during the week that England had to give the crowd something to shout about in order to regain their faith.
England did so from minute one. Flutey spotted the perfect mis-match and sliced past Sebastien Chabal before sending Cueto (wearing his Nike laser 2 football boots) away to touch down the opening try with just 70 seconds on the clock.
France, having picked a side reliant on power rather than panache, were looking for the more direct route and they ate into England territory with powerful runs from the destructive centre Mathieu Bastareaud and dynamic number eight Imanol Harinordoquy.
Simon Shaw hit a ruck from the side to offer Francois Trinh-Duc a shot at goal, which he missed, but otherwise England’s defence was defiant.
Twice they snatched turnover ball as Les Bleus threatened to build pressure in England’s half and, in a key turnaround to recent weeks, it was France who were falling foul of referee Stuart Dickinson.
If England were dominant without the ball they were incisive with it. Flood extended the lead to 10-0 after Harinordoquy was ruled offside before a slick attacking move sent Flutey over for a second try.
A similar training ground move had sent Mathew Tait clear in Dublin a fortnight ago – but on this occasion England were able to provide the finishing touch.
From the back of an attacking lineout, Flood slipped an inside pass for Cueto to carve through the French line before returning the favour with the scoring pass for Flutey.
Tom Croft thought he had got in on the action when Harry Ellis whipped play right following another of Nick Easter’s powerful carries but play was called back for a marginally forward pass from Lee Mears.
Not that the now excitable Twickenham crowd had to wait long. France were wobbling and England hammered home the advantage with two tries in the last three minutes of the half.
After Chabal had been stripped of possession by Flutey, England piled forward and pitched camp in the French 22. Shaw’s charge was halted short of the line but Armitage was on hand to provide the finishing touch.
England were now attacking in waves. Ellis chipped ahead and Flood came within inches of the line before slipping but the ball was shipped wide for Worsley to secure England a quite remarkable 29-0 lead at the interval.
Half-time did nothing to dilute England’s dominance or halt their momentum and when Yannick Jauzion spilled the ball after a brilliant tackle from Ellis, Armitage raced clear on the counter-attack and Flutey was on hand to finish a sparkling 75-metre try.England began to ring the changes and, unable to maintain their complete dominance, France eventually got on the scoreboard with hooker Szarzewski tunnelling over the line after France had earned two penalties deep in England’s 22.
England’s bad habits began to creep back in and referee Dickinson issued a warning as France cranked up the pressure at the scrum before winger Malzieu was able to saunter over for a simple try.
But England finished on a high with another powerful carry from Easter sending Armitage on another blistering break into the French half.
Tries: Cueto, Flutey 2, Armitage, Worsley
Cons: Flood 3
Tries: Szarzewski, Malzieu
England: 15 Delon Armitage, 14 Ugo Monye, 13 Mike Tindal, 12 Riki Flutey, 11 Mark Cueto, 10 Toby Flood, 9 Harry Ellis, 8 Nick Easter, 7 Joe Worsley, 6 Tom Croft, 5 Simon Shaw, 4 Steve Borthwick(c), 3 Phil Vickery, 2 Lee Mears, 1 Andrew Sheridan.
Replacements: 16 Dylan Hartley, 17 Julian White, 18 James Haskell, 19 Nick Kennedy, 20 Danny Care, 21 Andy Goode, 22 Mathew Tait.
France: 15 Maxime Medard, 14 Julien Malzieu, 13 Mathieu Bastareaud, 12 Yannick Jauzion, 11 Cedric Heymans, 10 Françios Trinh-Duc, 9 Morgan Parra, 8 Imanol Harinordoquy, 7 Sebastien Chabal, 6 Thierry Dusautoir, 5 Jérôme Thion, 4 Lionel Nallet (c), 3 Sylvain Marconnet, 2 Dimitri Szarzewski, 1 Lionel Faure.
Replacements: 16 Benjamin Kayzer, 17 Thomas Domingo, 18 Louis Picamoles, 19 Julien Bonnaire, 20 Sebastien Tillous-Borde, 21 Florian Fritz, 22 Damien Traille.
Referee: Stuart Dickinson (Australia)
Touch judges: Nigel Owens (Wales), Tim Hayes (Wales)
Television match official: Nigel Whitehouse (Wales)