TWICKENHAM, London — Ruthless England took another step towards a potential Grand Slam as they continued evolving their style of brilliantly effective, kick-focused rugby against France at Twickenham. But this Test also served as the latest nadir for French rugby.
England singled out deficiencies in France’s defence and punished them. For all the European talk of backstops at the moment, how Les Bleus could have done with some back-field defence. It was non-existent and there was no semblance of a game plan. They played like a team of individuals who had just met. Their performance was pathetic while England clicked for the second weekend running, with Owen Farrell producing a world-class performance.
Just 11 months ago, England lost 22-16 to France in Paris. It was their second successive defeat and they would fall to a further three defeats in the next four matches. They showed signs of life again in November’s Tests but still, when they rolled into Dublin last week, Jones was seen as a “poor man’s Mourinho”. But he has never lost trust or faith in this group. In the midst of their losing run he constantly said it was part of the process and inevitable. As England celebrate this resounding win, he is being proven right. Those who doubted him now look a little premature.
But England’s remarkable turnaround in form is more than mere cycles. They have evolved their game plan. The rest of the world will be paying a close eye to how they have made their kicking game such a weapon. Against Ireland last weekend, it kept the opposition back three constantly on their toes and again they utilised the boot with a wonderful effectiveness against France. Les Bleus were positionally adrift, having named a back three where the trio were all playing away from their favoured positions. Surely we have learnt the lesson of square pegs in round holes by now. Fullback Yoann Huget was never there to scrape up England’s kicks to space while wing Gael Fickou was absent and Damien Penaud, for all his effort in making yards on the opposite wing to Fickou, was a mere shadow in defence.
Jonny May grabbed a hat-trick, profiting from neat kicks in behind. His first was after 65 seconds, the fifth Test running where England have scored in the opening three minutes and May’s performance added further proof to his claim to be the most ruthless finisher in world rugby.
Chris Ashton, in his first Test start in six years, was eventually forced to come into midfield to find some love with all the kicking going down Penaud’s channel on the opposite side. But he did well to force a penalty try in the second half — it was perhaps a generous call by referee Nigel Owens — after he was hauled down by Fickou after another kick in behind the French defence. Farrell’s second-half try again came from a kick-focused move where Henry Slade intercepted a weak Camille Lopez and then nudged the ball forward for Farrell to dot down after the French defender spilled it backwards. They will be marked down as unforced French errors but in truth it was because of the relentless pressure England applied to their tryline. They were the equivalent of balls across the six-yard box in football, there for the finisher to tap in, and England did just that.
The other changes from last year’s miserable championship are in personnel. For just the second Test, England fielded Manu Tuilagi and the Vunipola brothers, Mako and Billy, in the same starting XV. How they missed them last year. And the strength in depth is at a stage now where players like Joe Cokanasiga, who ripped Australia apart in November, and Brad Shields, a key feature last year, can’t make the matchday squad. Kyle Sinckler has also taken huge steps forward in the last 12 months — the Lions tour played a big role here — while Elliot Daly is becoming ever-more assured at fullback and Slade offers another option with the boot.
And then there is this added ingredient: John Mitchell. The nomadic coach has years of experience but has provided this key ingredient to the England cocktail, with his added expertise and understanding of the game a great foil to Jones and his other lieutenants.
If England are moving ahead, France are rammed in reverse. That 16-0 lead in the first half against Wales in Week 1 already seems like an eternity ago. They offered little here and proved correct the numerous cynics of the current regime and model in French rugby. Though they are admirably blooding youth, their game plan is outdated and their preference for French coaches means they are robbed of any input from outside of their cosy clique. Sunday’s L’Equipe had a front page which simply said ‘We risk despair’, while ex-international Olivier Magne said the group was “associated with defeat” and was “traumatised”. Those portents were correct and exposed here.
After the forthcoming rest weekend, France will host Scotland in Paris and it is hard to see how they could perform any worse than they did here. Meanwhile, England head to Cardiff in round three. Beat Wales and they will surely go on to claim the Grand Slam, but Warren Gatland’s side will be as eager as ever to knock England off their perch.
That said, England’s greatest danger now is complacency. With Farrell at the helm and Jones in the hotseat, there’s little chance of that.