Updated: Dec 8, 2020
What a way to finish off the inaugural Autumn Nations Cup! For a moment there, flashbacks to Cardiff vs Leicester were ringing through my head as a penalty kick-finish looked to be on the cards... I'm so glad we finally had some excitement in a competition that felt like a bit of a dud throughout. Two nations went to WAR in this game and France were far from the pushovers fans thought they would be in this game; for a third string side, you can't give them enough credit for how they showed up in this game. We've already put together our player ratings for yesterday's game, so make sure to check that out, but in the meanwhile, let's dive into the recap!
Look we had to mention it okay! Please bear in mind that we are English supporters ourselves, but my lord did we get away with that one! France jackaled far better than England all game, really putting in a dogged, wily performance around the fringes... But the referee certainly didn't see it that way. Many times throughout the game it felt like the French backrow were the first to the breakdown but the ref preferred a far more old-school approach to clear entry and contest. Then later in the match there were multiple, critical decisions that needed reviewing such as the potential knock on from Vunipola in the last few minutes, the penalty (that wasn't a penalty) that struck England back into the game and took the match to extra time, and even one of the final penalties in extra time when Macalou was entirely legal and clamped on the ball but the focus was on a player who was out of the game and not contesting (nor was he obstructing). I hate ref bashing as much as the next guy, but a different day with a different ref, the game would have very obviously been in the French purse.
Fourth Time is NOT the Charm
England's back line eh? What a calamity... I'm not going to regurgitate the hate and angst towards England's kicking routine as it's been done to death, but England's attack it absolutely toothless. Ford refused to take the ball to the gainline, Youngs' (as he did against South Africa) nearly cost England the game via slow, painstakingly lethargic delivery, Farrell looked off the pace by two or three metres, struggling to get into shape in attack, Slade looked uncomfortable AGAIN, making handling mishaps and wrong decisions aplenty, and England's wingers had little to no chance with the shoddy service they were receiving. A lot of grief has been sent Daly's way this game, but I thought he was far better, cutting into the line when England needed him and the stats prove it with an impressive 101 metres gained overall. There is no dynamism, chemistry or fluidity in that backline shape and France didn't have to defend particular hard in the three quarters as England didn't test them at all. England looked far more dangerous with Robson and Malins on the pitch who proved that they NEED more game time... Shambolic really, but you'd have to think they will improve come the Six Nations.
The Kicking Battle... Who won?
Well France did really... Barring the silly drop from Jalibert in the second half, Dulin pegged England back over and over with intelligent, well placed kicks to TOUCH... Yes Dulin actually played the territory game the traditional way and it worked! Although England stuck to formula and Daly tried to use his siege cannon wherever he could, Dulin collected well, stayed calm and wore out England's back three by identifying space and exploiting it. This is the way to beat England... We know England outkick people, but England's kicking game is one of the most inconsistent in the home nations with players hoofing the ball without precision. England want to play on your five metre line, they want to kick you to death, but if you counter intelligently and exploit their inexperienced positional frailties, you will cause damage! Then you have to look at the place kicking game... My oh my what went wrong there? We all have off-days and Farrell has been so impressive off the tee in years gone by, but that's a couple matches in a row now of which he's kicking well below 75% (against France it was 55%). There was enough talent on that pitch to take over kicking duties and regardless of pride or routine, once you miss two, bang in front of the posts, it has to switch and that ego and pride nearly cost England the game... Oof!
Cut the Negativity!
It wasn't all doom and gloom, let's not jump on the anti-England bandwagon just yet... I mean they won two, begrudgingly very comfortable, trophies this year. Outside of some spotty performances against France this year, they have been a very dominant force throughout. This is purely down to the pack going into duper overdrive. Maro Itoje has been a revelation as his consistent performances and work-rate around the pitch, for a second row, has been game-changing; he's been against awesome competition in AWJ, Ryan and Rowlands but has trumped every single big name. Tom Curry, for a young guy, is as tough and snub-nosed as our finest backrowers in history; his carries are frightening, his breakdown-game is courageous and he hits like train against much larger athletes. Launchbury has enabled everything right with England, work rate, tenacity, physicality and match awareness. Jamie George continues to be an awe-inspiring hooker, able to put in carry after carry, tackle after tackle and use his hands when the ball needs flinging out. I honestly cannot praise England's pack enough as it did feel at times it was 8 vs 15 against Wales, Ireland and France. As a footnote though, I have to praise Billy Vunipola. With the added pressure of Willis, Simmonds and Dombrandt, Vunipola has been absolutely rinsed by the sporting population but continues to be an absolute stalwart for England; the problem isn't that he's not attacking enough, the problem is the system, but he's one of the best players for England in that system.
Where to go next?
Well the Six Nations is right around the corner and there is plenty of food for thought going in January/February. England's pack is a case of re-tuning the motor ahead of every competition; it works brilliantly, but it will require some tweaking and I still feel that Willis deserves a proper crack as England NEED more possession than they are currently getting. The backline needs a complete makeover and there needs to be some form taken into the equation. Farrell looks like he needs a rest and to recover some confidence, Ford needs removing from the picture entirely, Youngs needs to be aged out, Lawrence needs to continue starting, the wingers potentially need a re-jig and we have to sort out what we are doing at fullback. England are so dominant have some much depth but systemically and form-wise, we are playing well below our potential. The Lions will be on the forefront of every players mind going into the next competition, so you will need to make it easy for them and rotate wisely. Like many others, I would like to see Robson in, starting and gaining some chemistry with his standoff. Umaga is a bit out of form at the moment, so give Smith or Simmonds a chance off the bench (any reluctance or comment against either player is just entirely wrong), integrate a REAL fullback and see whether the overall performance changes (my picks wood be Woodward or Hammersley) and for goodness sake think of some backs moves! France on the other hand should be very confident with youngsters and experience aplenty; they seem to have England's number this year and they will only get better. Their depth is beginning to flourish and their gameplan is beginning to gain some consistency.
Billy Vunipola: Huge hits, important carries and a huge work-rate usually equals an awesome performance, that's pretty true here.
Tom Curry: Rightfully a MOTM performance, hitting well above his weight, carrying with real ferocity and intensity, and pushing this huge French pack to their absolute limits.
Cameron Woki: Disrupted England's lineout well, looked a real threat at the breakdown and made ground with each carry.
Joe Marler: A short cameo admittedly, but a game changing one. Put in a match saving hit and scrummaged well when it mattered.
Owen Farrell: That's four in a row unfortunately... Most missed tackles, worst kicking percentage, little to no ground made, another poor day at the office. He will bounce back.
George Ford: Largely anonymous again, kicked out of hand terribly, looked toothless in attack, rarely involved in defence too.
Gabin Villière: Unfortunately didn't get involved nearly as much as he should have, looked weak in defence (exploited by Watson and Daly on a couple of occasions).
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