This was a very interesting match, because the first half went just as we were not expecting it to. Time to dissect what happened.
France, credit where it’s due, were so quick and sharp and willing to fight for every ball – something we know France can do, but that they haven’t done for a very long time. Having Teddy Thomas on one wing and Vincent Rattez on the other means that France can play the ball out wide, knowing that they have quick players in those areas ready to cause issues for England. The first try in particular came from such a move, with Thomas driving forward, before the ball was passed around quickly, and then a quick switch inside allowed Rattez to cut inside and go through the gap created and put the ball in the try area. It wasn’t easy, but it was so well executed by Les Bleues. So their attack is better, and their defence is better. This is a new France side, and a dangerous one.
They have got some really good players in their side. Fly-half Ntamack I have spoken about previously in my tournament preview, but he was really good in the first half. Rattez and Thomas are two of their shining lights. Rattez in particular is 27 but played like he was 21 – he was confident and willing to run with the ball either in wide positions or coming inside. Whatever was required, he did it. He was a huge threat to the English defence, and it was exactly what caused them problems.
All of this meant that, in the second half, they knew they didn’t have to rush into any on-pitch moves or phases, because they knew that England would just keep giving the ball back to them through penalty concessions. I thought new captain Charles Ollivon, who took over the metaphorical armband from hooker Guilhem Guirado after his retirement following the World Cup, was brilliant all match. The second and third French tries came from roughly the same moves; the ball went wide to La Rochelle wing Rattez, before it then came back inside to Ollivon to score. The skipper was constantly playing the supporting attack role, and it proved to be the reason for these two tries being scored. By bringing the ball back inside, it left a gap in the English defence for Ollivon to exploit and score from.
The other player that I thought had an outstanding match was debutant full-back Anthony Bouthier, who put in a very assured performance, and, at the age of 27, there are good signs that he can be one for at least the next few years. He defended well, playing really cleverly when the ball was in his territory, and also attacked well, getting involved in the attacks that his team made. He was really impressive throughout.
The final point to make about France was that their main issue in this match was the loss of their scrum in the second half. That was the one thing that did go right for England, but it still wasn’t enough for them. However, France look like a real handful, and could finish higher than perhaps most expected in this tournament. However, it is still Round 1, so we will see.
Onto England, then. First off, they just didn’t seem alive to the situations, and weren’t awake to the tempo of the match in the way that France were. Their lineouts were being intercepted all the time, in very easy ways, and that seemed to take England’s confidence away and give it to France in abundance. The Roses needed to see the danger much quicker, and react, and in the first half they just didn’t do that.
Defensively, I have spoken about how good France were, but England were leaving a few gaps for France to advance through. Thomas and Rattez were particularly beneficial from these, but from England’s point of view, I think defence coach John Mitchell was fuming with what he saw at times in that first half.
In attack, they made more errors, and in fact in the first half, they looked a shadow of themselves from some recent performances. This was not the England that we have become accustomed to seeing. Chief among their problems was the handling errors that plagued their attack. It was a very wet evening in Paris, but England made 7 errors to France’s 5 in the first half. The difference was that France took advantage of England’s whereas the same was not true the other way around. For this reason, they could never get any momentum going, as every time it looked like they might get somewhere, the ball slipped out their hands, or France made an interception of some sort, and possession went back to the home side.
The other thing England were doing which was really sloppy and poor was to not listen to referee Nigel Owens. In one example, at a lineout, England and France were closing the gaps and were both rightly pulled up for it, but then England did the same thing again, and France won the penalty. It was things like this lack of discipline and the aforementioned handling errors that led to the misery of the first half for the Roses.
In the second half, they made a better start, which in all honesty was needed. Ultimately, they did have to score first, as otherwise France would move out of sight on the scoreboard. However, it very quickly went from bad to worse as the errors from the first half continue to come for England – in particular the knock-ons from positions on the ground, which frequently gave France the penalty advantage when on their own penalty line.
England did manage to get their attack sorted but couldn’t get anything to show for it, and that meant that, as mentioned before, France knew that they didn’t have to try too hard in the second half – they could rely on the Roses giving the ball away, and hand them the ball on a silver plate.
The changing factor, amongst other changes, was the introduction of Gloucester scrum-half Willi Heinz for Leicester Tigers’ Ben Youngs. Immediately, England seemed to have more about them, and could put moves together. Jonny May seemed to rediscover his pace and eye for the try line by scoring a brilliant solo effort, with England using the scrum to bring the French forward pack together, and then using the space in behind to get May in to score. It was the first good piece of play that England had put together in the whole match. It was safe to say that Jonny May had not been able to do in the first half what he normally does on a regular basis, but in the second half he was able to. The reason why is difficult to say, but perhaps England didn’t have enough creativity in the first half, but in the second half they managed to bring some flair back into it (“some”, mind you – it wasn’t a complete turnaround).
The introduction of Heinz seemed to invigorate the team much more, as he made a difference to their attack, as I said before. He was happy to get on the ball and try to make things happen for England. They looked much more assured after he came on, and had much more urgency in their attacks. They didn’t just pass the ball sideways – they wanted to get it forwards and really get at the French defence, however, it was a case of too little, too late.
MAN OF THE MATCH:
There were several good performances from French players in this one. Bouthier was brilliant, as previously explained, and fly-half Romain Ntamack played a really assured game. However, there was one performance that was deserving of the MOTM award – Charles Ollivan. The new skipper played incredibly well on his debut, leading from the front and scoring two tries. He was a worthy winner of this one.
France are at home again next weekend, hosting Italy on Sunday afternoon for the Giuseppe Garibaldi Trophy match. Meanwhile, England are on the road again, as they travel to Murrayfield to face Scotland on Saturday evening.