(Wrote this on iPad while watching Chelsea beating Man City 1-0 at the Etihad. Impressive multi-tasking, I’m sure you’ll agree!)
Well I said the predictions would probably be wrong! So close though, and agonising for England after coming back brilliantly from 16-3 down. An entertaining battle, which could have gone either way, but it was looking like England’s until the last few minutes.
So what went wrong for England, or right for France? I’ve seen suggestions on Twitter that England weren’t fit enough. I don’t buy that one – early in the second half the commentators were saying France had lost their legs. True, Owen Farrell got cramp with ten minutes to go and that restricted what he could do. But I doubt that was a lack of fitness. Did England lack the experience to close the game down? Again, don’t think so. The backs were certainly youthful, but so were France’s – the game was won by a nineteen year old, Fickou – and the English forwards had plenty of nous and hard experience.
No, I think it was the substitutions that did for England. There are always plenty of them in rugby these days. It’s a brutal game, and the forwards, especially, need refreshing to maintain momentum. But just as England went 21-16 ahead, with a cheeky drop goal from Danny Care, the changes began. And one of the first to go was Danny boy. Coaches often do swap scrum halves at around 60 mins. They play such a pivotal role in the game, and a new man can bring fresh energy and different angles. But Danny was running the game, still showing zip, driving the forwards on. It was a very odd decision, good as the replacement, Lee Dickson, is.
The other change that didn’t work – no surprises – was Dylan Hartley coming off and Tom Youngs coming on. Now the all-action nature of the hooker means a swap is inevitable. It worked brilliantly for France as sub Dimitri Szarzewski made a superb run and pass to Fickou to set up the winning try. But when Youngs replaces Hartley the line out loses its poise, doubts creep in. Youngs made some powerful surges, but some of the control was lost.
And did the awesome Courtney Lawes really need to come off?
I know the coaches are sitting in the stands monitoring the individual performances, making fine judgements about how to strengthen and rebalance the team as the pressure mounts in the final quarter. To this day I don’t really feel I know the half of what’s going on, on the rugby field.
But it looked like England, having powered their way to a lead after a terrible start, had France on the rack, a foot on collective French neck, and then released the pressure. Any game between closely-matched teams is going to ebb and flow. Often when you get on top is when you relax, even if you don’t realise it. Maybe that’s why the subs came on. To keep up the pressure. But another ten minutes or so with Care and Hartley running the show might have made England unassailable.
The great thing about great contests. If, but, maybe, should’ve, could’ve…
England showed a lot of promise (Nowell and Burrell both did well, I thought), France showed they’ve still got the winning mentality. With Ireland and Wales winning as expected, England now have the catch-up challenge. They managed it during the France game and then fell at the last. Can they claw their way back over the five games and make it a four way battle for the Six Nations?
Got to say yes!