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England endure one calamity after another

Paul Ackford 19/8/07

France 22 England 9

This was a terrible night for England. Their calamitous form away from home now reads one solitary victory in 15 attempts, in itself a statistic to cause adults to weep given that all England's World Cup fixtures are far from their beloved Twickenham.

But it was worse, much worse, than that. England lost their captain Phil Vickery with concussion, Martin Corry limped off towards the end with a twisted knee and there were disturbing signs that England's one and only game plan, which is based on forward power, is nowhere near powerful enough.

France simply outmuscled them and in the process many of England coach Brian Ashton's key individuals had poor games. Tom Rees, on his own, was unable to match the brute force of French flankers Yannick Nyanga and Thierry Dusautoir in the collisions over the ball. It was tough on the lad. More often than not he was outnumbered at the breakdown but it was ridiculous to think that he could turn into a sensation overnight. He can't.

Mark Cueto, another man learning his trade too close to a World Cup, did not look comfortable at all in the full-back slot. There was one horrendous example when he failed to gather an easy kick ahead and then fly-hacked at the ball in disgust but the rest of his play was also sub-standard. Not once did he seem capable of spotting and running good lines from deep.

It was a similar story whenever England tried to get their attacking game going. Jonny Wilkinson lacked fluency, appearing desperately manufactured, and Andy Farrell and Dan Hipkiss did nothing to suggest that they are the answer to England's midfield prayers after an opening quarter where they looked tight and composed. To be fair, they were on the back foot most of the time and no one likes to play rugby with that disadvantage. But on the few occasions when England did build up a head of steam they were unable to turn it into anything special.

Up front it was no walk in the park either because England enjoyed none of the dominance they contrived at Twickenham principally because France, as they had promised, addressed their deficiencies at scrum and line-out.

France weren't as sharp elsewhere on the pitch but they had enough control to play the rugby in the areas they wanted. The half time stats gave France nearly 60 per cent advantage in terms of territory and possession which, given the size of their back line patrolled menacingly by the huge Damien Traille and Yannick Jauzion, meant England had to conjure ways other than straight running to get past them and that they could not do.

France now go into the World Cup as one of the favourites. There was a wonderful vibrancy to everything that happened in Marseille yesterday, the venue where England hope to contest a quarter-final against either Australia or Wales. The stadium was a riot of noise and colour and it seemed to puff up the French side who will now swagger a little more confidently after this result.

Time running out for England

In fact, the only worrying aspect for France from a World Cup point of view was that once again top flight Test rugby resembled a war zone at times, with crumpled players dragging themselves off the floor to hurtle into each other again and again.

The first half ended with Vickery being carted off on a stretcher after he had clashed with Traille. From my vantage point it appeared that the England captain was lining up Traille for a big hit only to get it wrong and suffer a whiplash injury to his neck as Simon Shaw, his Wasps team-mate, also got involved. Shaw was adjudged to have gone high on Traille. Whatever the precise sequence of events, Shaw received a yellow card and Vickery crashed to the ground and lay motionless on the turf as the England medical team summoned the stretcher. It's the latest in a long list of injuries to befall Vickery and with less than three weeks to the start of the World Cup it was the worst news for England.

But there was more misfortune of a different kind. Wilkinson, England's get-out-of-jail card in so many games, had an exceedingly ordinary first period which did not improve as the game continued. Part of that was down to the French defence which, like England's, was intensely robust. But the other factor was that Wilkinson played with nothing like his habitual accuracy. One penalty out of hand went directly into touch to hand the advantage back to France; there was little length to his touch-finders; he missed a fairly ordinary pot at goal and his re-starts were too long, allowing Clement Poitrenaud and Fabien Pelous, among others, to regroup.



PAUL ACKFORD - Sunday Telegraph | Sunday, 19 August 2007 | Comment on this article

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