Sunday, March 11, 2007

Cutting the (French) mustard

Juxtapose, for a second, England's performance of two weeks ago in Dublin, against today's versus France. To heap opprobrium on England for their deficiencies in the Ireland match does an injustice to the levels of skill shown by their opponents at a wet and windy Croke Park, but if there were few sparks of life in that starkly stuttering performance, the corpse was well and truly reanimated to a rousing backdrop of 'Swing Low' this afternoon.

While I felt that there were signs of a willingness to try something new in the defeat to the Irish, with the big men in green marauding up front, and O'Gara pulling England this way and that with his kicking, there was little opportunity to evaluate whether the rose had any chance of blooming again soon or not. But from Toby Flood's early (and successful) chip and chase, through some of David Strettle's quicksilver footwork and George Chuter(!)'s backhanded offload in open play, right the way to Sean Geraghty's pinwheeling mid-tackle offload, minutes after entering the fray, there was an invigorating sense of 'he who dares wins' about England's play against France.

That there were so many errors in the game (even Brian Moore blanched at some of the skill levels on display, old quick-fingered virtuoso that he once was...) perhaps provided the best indicator that England were playing off the cuff, giving it some air - although Josh Lewsey took that mandate a little too far when he launched a pass so misguided it would have provoked guffaws at a colts match. For all of Nick Easter's impressive yardage, his two attempted 'hikes' from the back of the scrum came off badly, while there were some awful periods of turnover ping-pong in the first half; though this admittedly relied in part on some gracious return gestures in the shambles stakes by the French. Yet, it has become increasingly clear that 15 muscular hominids crunching into each other, phase after phase, does not only make for a dour spectacle, but is also less likely to bring results than it once was. Going long, as NFL Quarterbacks have it, helps to stretch teams, and quick offloads, cut-out passes, and high-speed switches all exist on the fine line between success and failure.

The most heartening aspects of England's victory - and boy, were they joyous - were the contributions of the two young stand-offs, Flood and Geraghty, who both played as if the legend of Jonny Wilkinson had never been written, let alone has a few chapters left to run. When Ashton picked his first squad as head coach, I voiced the opinion that while the fly halves of Newcastle and London Irish respectively may one day inhabit the same empyrean sphere that Jonny and Daniel Carter rule largely unchallenged, they were surely too callow for that day to come any time soon. Well, it's too early for superlatives, clearly, but Flood exuded supreme confidence in his decision making, while Geraghty made his presence felt like an electric heater dropped into a bath, all sparks and heat, slicing through the French midfield like so much Gallic butter. The only aberrations (if they were such) can have been Flood's two missed penalties, which, had they been scored, would have pushed England's total towards a (probably undeserved) rout.

So, plenty to be cheery about, from a fixture that loomed almost as menacingly as the Irish did. With a Wales scorned up next, some lessons in consistency and handling will need to be learned in training, without attenuating the free-flowing ideals that infused the best of England's moments today. I don't know about you, but I fancy munching on some Welsh rarebit this Saturday...

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