Beattie: 'Genge obliterated Ireland's scrum. He bossed Tadhg Furlong'
To the neutral, ‘Le Crunch’ has always been the jewel in the Six Nations crown. A mighty collision of English power and French flair, Anglo efficiency and Gallic elan.
Here in France, the anticipation for ‘Super Saturday’ is ratcheting up to levels I have never witnessed. The people are in thrall to rugby beyond anything seen in over a decade. The game is all anyone talks about when I drop my kids off at school, head to the supermarket, or chat to the postman as he pops round with the morning mail. The place has gone into a frenzy.
Little wonder when a Grand Slam – France’s first since 2010 – is on the line in Paris this Saturday night, and all that stands between Les Bleus and their cherished prize is an inconsistent England. What chance have Eddie Jones’ men, with their callow playmakers and fluctuating form, got in the bearpit of Le Stade?
Actually, not a terribly slim one. Combine the tremendous heart and wit of their 14-man heroics against Ireland with Wales’ canny strategy against France on Friday, and England have their blueprint for the role of party poopers.
Jones described England’s performance as a ‘foundation game’ for the World Cup. It is odd to talk of foundations six years into his reign, but that’s what the display was on the most simplistic level.
My highest Six Nations finish with Scotland was third, when Dean Ryan was part of our coaching staff. Dean used to say to us, ‘an Englishman is hitting you with a big stick, what are you going to do about it?’. He talked about winning Test matches in the most basic terms. That was through kick-chase, set-piece, tackles and collisions. England almost pulled off the unthinkable by bossing those areas.
They were galvanised by Charlie Ewels’ red card – and there is no doubt the lock’s high, late, head-to-head hit merited a sending off. We have not seen much of Ewels as an international starter, and he got his attempt to impose himself physically on another second-row badly wrong. The only thought anyone should have had in that moment was for the stricken James Ryan. It is not Ryan’s first head injury, and we can only hope it will not affect his career or, more importantly, his long-term health. The frequent grumbling on Twitter is that red cards destroy games, something needs to change, and paying punters deserve better. Where is the concern for the player’s wellbeing?
For all that people moan about cards destroying the spectacle, what an audacious show of character those England players served up. When you lose a second-row, your line-out is heavily reshuffled, your scrum is hugely impacted, and you have to problem-solve on the hoof, which England failed badly to manage earlier this championship. Yet they dominated Ireland in those facets. Never mind the sheer exhaustion of spending almost an entire game a man down. To organise themselves under massive pressure and extreme fatigue on the biggest of stages was remarkable.
Every scrum victory was amplified, every disrupted maul celebrated by roars and spilled pints from a Twickenham crowd not traditionally renowned for febrility or raucous intent. Propelled by that backing, England were really close to pulling off one of the biggest results in the Six Nations era.
Player-camming three English forwards would tell the story of the game, and England’s refusal to let one action, one card, dictate the narrative. Ellis Genge, Maro Itoje and Jamie George were the visceral embodiment of English stubbornness.
Genge obliterated Ireland’s scrum. He bossed Tadhg Furlong. There are a few moments you get as a rugby player where you completely own your opposite man and shift momentum in a match. Genge stepped forward with his chest pumped and had Furlong’s reverse lights flashing over and over, which almost never happens to the hulking ‘Mayor of Wexford’. Genge often has his character unfairly questioned, but here was the rugby player and the character combined in an awesome blend.
Itoje was not so much a thorn in Ireland’s side as an entire rose bush. He wrecked their disallowed Caelan Doris try, and infiltrated their mauls with timing, power and presence. The volume and quality of work he got through was imperious.
George, like Genge, was key to the scrum efforts, but his collisions, industry and excitement set him apart. You could see how much he enjoyed that performance, latter describing it as one of his “proudest moments in an England shirt”.
You have to go to dark places when you are a man down, you have to dig deep and bring something out of yourself. It was one of those days for the English pack, with that trident at the forefront.
England must take the obstinance and determination and apply it to the game plan deployed by Wales, who have come closest to derailing the French juggernaut. Where they failed to capitalise on red-zone possession, England have the technical quality to succeed.
Neither team played especially well in Cardiff because there was so much non-rugby. Nobody was playing multi-phase stuff. It isn’t the entertaining game we want to see – it is a chess battle. It’s about how you can keep the ball away from your third, make no errors, be pragmatic, and then win cheap field position.
That’s what Wales did under Warren Gatland for years. Now France are doing it, and everyone is saying it’s so weird, so un-French, but it’s what almost every other team have done for a decade – France are just doing it better. It’s about building momentum and pressure. If you can’t build pressure, stick it up in the air, and if the opposition do get the ball back, it’s poor-quality ball.
That game broke the French TV audience record for a Test match. It was watched by an average of 6.9m people, with a peak figure of 8m for the final 10 minutes – the combined population of Ireland and Wales. Imagine every single person in those two countries tuning in to a rugby match. That gives you an indication of how adored and admired this team is now.
The prize for France is that first slam in a dozen years, a monumental opportunity for them. But in some ways, it’s almost as big a game for England and their coach.
What I find bizarre about the whole Jones complex is his constant focus on the World Cup. When you’re involved in any rugby environment, your immediate goal is to win the next game, not the global showpiece once every four years. England were fifth in last year’s Six Nations, and the best they can do this season is third. They should be first or second every year with the depth and resources at Jones’ disposal. It must infuriate fans to hear him talk of 2023 time and again, when there are tournaments in front of your nose you want your team to win.
Jonny Sexton, who spent two years with Racing 92 and knows a thing or two about Parisian glory, said England have a great chance this weekend, because “England are England, one of the most dominant teams in world rugby”. They certainly have a squad capable of winning every game in this competition, but a distant third? Jones will know that is not good enough.
Victory on Saturday, though, could change the complexion of an otherwise stuttering campaign. Jones will have one day fewer to prepare his team, and travel to consider, making a win even more impressive.
England might well have to beat France on their own turf next autumn if they are to lift the Webb Ellis Cup. The Six Nations title is gone for another year, but should they spoil a French party of this size and grandeur, thrive in the teeming cacophony of Stade de France, it could be a defining triumph for the players, Jones, and their quest for 2023 riches.
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