There is nothing worse than the two week break period in the Six Nations. I mean, especially when your national side gets schooled and you have a fortnight of friendly ribbing to deal with. As an England fan, it's been a rather exhausting Six Nations thus far. The side is misfiring, Jones is antagonising the press, the fans are in-fighting, its the last tournament before its behind a pay wall and its actually become a bit of a chore to watch. However, I felt a spring-induced optimism as France have become a genuinely exciting side to watch, even if you're the opposition. If nothing else, surely this game would pack a punch and showcase some genuine quality, even if it doesn't look right on paper... How did it go?
Full Throttle Beginnings
England over the last three years have become infamous for their fast starts. When given the option, they always kick deep into enemy territory, challenge at the line out and knock seven bells at of the opposition during the opening encounter. However, over the last 3 three games, England have looked uncharacteristically sluggish, largely down to a lack of match readiness and match intensity. Form plays a big part as you take the momentum from the last game, but the majority of the squad hasn't played even close to the amount of time needed to take any momentum from any games. As much as I think that this has become a worrying trend for English Rugby, there was no stopping that France start. The fluidity of the French attack, the precision in their offloading and sheer gas out wide, led to an early break, converted by an awesome chip and gather by the face of French Rugby, Dupont. There was not stopping that...
England battled back well though, cutting interesting lines of their own with Slade in particular finding holes with every shimmy. Eventually, the ball flew out wide for Watson to capitalise on loose defending, that's when I knew this game wasn't like the others.
At the end of the day, the biggest separation between the two sides came at 10, with both sides players' of the competition playing at Fly Half. Jalibert was elusive, dynamic, exploratory and creative, whereas Ford chose to distribute efficiently, accurately and used his wealth of match intelligence to identify scenarios a phase ahead of them playing out. To me, the calculated 10 beat out the maverick 10 on the day. Ford's distribution was nothing short of magnificent, varying the play from side to side, throwing deft, shallow passes to the likes of Slade, Vunipola and Curry who cut excellent lines. He became the pivot that England were exploding from. His kicking was also much improved, heaving the ball in the air 10m in front of Dulin every time. Although England didn't win the aerial battle, it meant that France were constantly committing numbers into recollections rather than keeping their attacking depth. Everything that England did well in attack in this game, came from a Ford decision and pass.
The Back Row Battle
Much, much better. England have had a feared back row for the best part of three years now, and it seemed uncomfortable to see them so easily disjointed by other sides cohesive counter play. Although Curry has been a star from game to game, Vunipola's lack of fitness and dynamism has been questioned constantly and Wilson has looked anonymous game to game. That narrative was truly trodden on in this game as all three had blinders against an incredibly mobile French outfit. Curry carried well, jackaled expertly and put in big hits when required. Wilson became a real disrupted, pressuring Dupont around the fringes, constantly finding himself between the 9 and 10 channel slowing distribution. Vunipola carried much, much better, popping up in closer spaces and not spending half the game at Full Back like he did last week; this was one of Vunipola's best performances in an England shirt.
Front Row Conundrum
England's Front Row has been pretty consistent through the competition. Although George has looked a little unfit, Sinckler has continued to look like a world class option and Vunipola played really well last week against Wales. The big difference for me, is the combatativeness of England's Front Row around the fringes. Cowan Dickie hit people like a train, and more than once he left Aldritt and Ollivon gasping for air after he had just taken it from them. Although Vunipola looked a bit inconsistent at scrum time, you cannot deny his work rate in the loose. Genge also looked far more assured when he came on, instead doing the simple things a bit more accurately and helping England close out the game. England will be heading into next competition, hopefully, with one of the deepest, most experienced Front Rows in international Rugby.
However, as good as England were on the day, I do get this overriding feeling that France should have done better. At 20 - 13 up, it felt like France were in the driving seat and just needed a guiding arm to bring them home. Instead of opting for an intelligent territory game or choosing to play Rugby in the right areas of the pitch, they still kept trying to use their flair and attacking moves to punish England. England became savvy to this and worked hard to weather each storm until Frances accuracy began to become sloppy. Dropped balls by Vakatawa, unusual options by Jalibert and Duponts slightly erratic fringe play had France looking a little uncomposed and you just felt that the coaching set up should have brought Ntamack on to steady the ship. As England began to generate their own atmosphere, cheering each decision and big hit, France looked genuinely flustered, unsure in what they should next. Maybe it's a lack of leadership, maybe it's the week of preparation they haven't had, but France should have done much better in the final quarter.
Henry Slade - Huge performance by Slade who had one of the best centres in world Rugby in his pocket all game. Great offloading, fantastic lines and some huge hits.
Tom Curry - Looking like a future Hall of Famer, Curry players years above his own age and had one of the most complete Flanker performances we've seen in years.
George Ford - Our MotM on the day, Ford's distribution and kicking game became the difference between the two sides.
Luke Cowan Dickie - 12 successful line out throws in a row, some of the biggest hits we've seen all competition and really added a fear factor to England's defence.
Virimi Vakatawa - Looked a little lost at times, being used as a distribution option in the second half and losing the ball in contact when he did have to take it in, odd.
Owen Farrell - Right it will seem very harsh as he kicked well and tackled much better, but he's just not quick enough to play centre. Frances second try purely came down to him being gassed on the outside shoulder and he just couldn't catch Fickou when he started to explore out in the midfield.
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