This year’s edition of Le Crunch saw a resurgent France who many tipped for the title before the tournament began face an England side hurting after seeing their title defence crumble, with a poor return after three games. However, France have had their rhythm interrupted after positive COVID-19 tests saw many of their key players and coaching staff isolating and their last game against Scotland postponed. Therefore, many thought England might edge this one, especially since they have had referees Matthew Carley and Wayne Barnes in their camp this week to help them iron out their discipline issues.
France started well, especially in attack, and were finding gaps which we know have been present in the English defence since the start of the tournament. One example of this came in the first minutes of the game, when centre Virimi Vakatawa and winger Teddy Thomas worked together to get the ball into space, before star scrum-half Antoine Dupont got it down for the first French try, only a couple of minutes into the game.
However, despite this early advantage, France were not able to build on it with their usual free-flowing rugby. They were being forced to kick from tight pockets of space in their own half, allowing England to have control of the game. When they attacked, they couldn’t find the spaces they usually do, as England tightened up defensively and stopped them breaking through, and they had to find new ways to create space. Lineout throws that went over the two jumping lines helped them in this, with one of these leading to fly-half Mathieu Jalibert setting up winger Damian Penaud to score arguably the try of the tournament so far, so, whilst they had to adapt, France were still proving to be a threat to England.
In the second half, fatigues began to play a part in France’s game, with them making a few errors as a result. Their lack of preparation and rhythm was also a reason for this, and they had to rely on their defensive strength much more in the second half, keeping England back. They didn’t play badly at all, and were clearly gutted at full-time with the loss and the Grand Slam going away from them. Their attention will now turn to Wales next weekend, knowing they have to win well in order to keep their title hopes alive.
England, meanwhile, were much improved from their ropey performances so far in this tournament. They looked to move the ball quicker, giving them a renewed confidence to make use of the spaces they created as a result. We have already mentioned how they forced France to kick the ball clear from small areas of the pitch, but this came because their back line were happy to run forward with the ball, rather than simply kicking it back towards the French players, thereby demonstrating their intent to keep the pressure on France as much as possible.
Full-back Max Malins, making his first test start for England, was particularly important in this, driving forward as much as he could. England’s quick passing again helped them in this, and eventually led to their first try of the game, scored by winger Anthony Watson. Malins’ inclusion definitely added the extra threat and energy that England have been lacking so far this year, with Elliott Daly not playing at his best so far, perhaps due to a lack of game time. There were still signs that Malins still needs to learn how to play in this team, as he sometimes made the wrong decision with the ball, but there was plenty to be excited about with him in the team.
There was no doubting that England had more ideas in this game, looking much more creative, and France almost looked a little stunned at times at what they were facing. We know France’s defence has been strong, but England were continually looking to break through them, which was a key reason why they were playing so well in this game. It will have further encouraged them that they were finding spaces when others have struggled to do so against France, given the strength Les Bleus have in their defensive line.
It wasn’t perfect from England in the first half, as Penaud’s try was helped by the home side momentarily switching off, and this is the danger for England, and is something they will need to continue to be aware of. However, they will have been encouraged by the way they took the game to France, and will have now realised how well they can play when at the top of the game. There weren’t so many penalties being conceded by England either, which was a huge improvement, but the ones they did give away tended to lead to points for France, so, again, they still need to ensure the silly errors are cut out as much as possible.
They showed a few more moments of attacking quality as well, getting into good positions in the early stages of the second half, but what held them back was that they couldn’t take advantage of those chances and turn them into points. This is something they now need to focus on, because, especially against teams like France who defend well, they will never win if they can’t take the opportunities they do get. It might have taken them until the closing stages of the game to finally find a way through to win the game, with lock Maro Itoje going over after sustained attacking pressure, but this was England’s reward for never giving up, and reflected their desire, but they will know that this is only one step in the right direction, and they need to keep working hard to get back to where they were beforehand.
MAN OF THE MATCH:
There were plenty of good performances on the pitch, but Anthony Watson deserves this for the way he played. On the occasion of his 50th international cap, he was everywhere for England, involved in much of their attacking play, chasing balls down, and had a brilliant overall game.
France are at home in their next game, hosting Wales at the Stade de France in what looks like a potential title decider next Saturday evening. However, they do have a game in hand, which will be important if they beat Wales to keep the tournament alive. England, meanwhile, play their last game of this year’s tournament when they travel to Dublin for a tricky tie against Ireland in Saturday’s middle game.