Five takeaways from record England loss to France in the Six Nations
Saturday at Twickenham was one of those dramatic evenings that will live long in the memory, be it from the perspective of shambolic England or flamboyant France. We should have seen the comfortable win coming. England hadn’t convincingly produced the brilliant basics that Steve Borthwick spent the whole of February prattling on about while France, given their champion pedigree of last year, were always likely to sublimely click at some stage after an opening month of fits and starts displays.
What couldn’t have been expected was that the French would essentially hammer the English twice in the same game, 27-3 in part one and then 26-7 in part two, denying the hosts the consolation that would have been ‘winning’ the second half. Their finishing was sublime given the greasy conditions, and their post-game celebrations were joyous and infectious. Here are five RugbyPass takeaways from a memorable rainy night in south-west London:
Multiple heads must roll
If Borthwick’s reaction to the six-point opening round loss to Scotland was to drop three players for the next day, Marcus Smith, Joe Marchant and Ben Curry paying the price on that occasion, then he should be taking a sledgehammer to his selection after this latest loss and dropping eight or nine for next Saturday in Dublin. If the coach really is the patriotic English rugby man he constantly describes himself as then there should be no leniency for a humiliating 43-point margin of defeat at home. Multiple heads must roll.
Let’s start at half-back. Get Alex Mitchell and his Jamison Gibson-Park-type energy into the starting side as young Jack van Poortvliet is plodding along, mirroring how fellow youngster Harry Randall fared in the team in last year’s championship. And pair the Saints No9 with George Ford. There’s no point in Borthwick going on about England having “three world-class out-halves” if he keeps sending Ford home to Manchester on a Tuesday. Smith and Farrell both had their chances at 10 in this championship, so play Ford versus Ireland and see what happens.
Henry Arundell for Max Malins on the wing is another alteration, as is Manu Tuilagi for Slade. Some might say Tuilagi should be past tense at Test level, but he is kryptonite to the Irish, a winner on all six occasions he has faced them. Get him in there. As for a partner, it depends on Ollie Lawrence’s fitness and where Borthwick is in his head with Farrell at 12 given it’s a positioning he ran away from after the round one crash.
Switching to the pack, there should be a lengthy discussion regarding an ill-fitting back row blend as well what are the alternatives at hooker to Jamie George? He has grown stale with the lack of competition. But a major question should surely be: Does Maro Itoje need the shock treatment of getting dropped in order to buck up in World Cup year? It’s an aeon since he last truly dominated at Test level against top-class opposition and he was sadly Clark Kent again, not Superman, versus the French. Let’s radically shake it up, Steve.
RFU fish stinks from on high
A penny for the thoughts of the media-shy Bill Sweeney, the RFU CEO with the ridiculously over-the-top remuneration package. Bad to worse surely wasn’t what was envisaged when he sacked Eddie Jones and replaced him with Borthwick and co, a decision that didn’t come cheaply.
Admittedly, fans had generally lost patience in November. A single win from four matches was simply not good enough. However, Borthwick is just a single win from his three home games so far and if his appointment was designed to win back fans, Saturday’s gutless display only further alienated them.
No matter how bad the last two England years with Jones at the helm were, he was a Test rugby junkie with more success than failure and the stadium never emptied out on his watch with a match still going, no matter how frustrating his team was.
It damningly emptied on Saturday, though, the final minutes of the battering becoming too painful to watch, and with this particular RFU fish rotting from the head, there now must be a concern that the powers-that-be shafted Jones before his time and replaced him with a rookie who is potentially way out of his depth starting his tenure in a World Cup year.
Japan and Samoa will be licking their lips, just like the Argies who got the ball rolling with their November win. After Saturday, there can be no guarantee that this England XV will win their way out of the pool.
Moral of the Genge story
The usual post-match procedure at Twickenham is for the visitors to do their thing first in the media centre, clearing the way for England to then say their piece second – but that pattern was reversed on Saturday. Borthwick struggled to put into words what had unfolded and generally came across unimpressively, but Ellis Genge said something that piqued the interest and would do with remembering by those so keen to write off the new regime (RugbyPass included).
“I have been in this situation numerous times before at club level, with international, we have been through some rough spells and everyone writes us off and brilliant,” he said.
He wasn’t bluffing. It was September 2020 when he skippered Leicester for the very first time, an embarrassing 7-54 drubbing away to Wasps in Coventry. Twenty-one months on from that one-try-to-eight shambles, Genge was skippering Borthwick’s Tigers to Premiership title glory at Twickenham.
The moral of that story is patience is key and that people shouldn’t jump to conclusions. However, the margin of error at Test level is vastly smaller and the reputational damage being done to England is getting horrible.
Brilliant ball-shy forwards
Statistics, eh?! Six Nations partners Sage produce an endless rabbit hole of numbers on the back of every match in the championship, but the headline figures from Twickenham simply didn’t add up to a 43-point drubbing for the hosts.
England were credited with more possession (53 per cent), territory (56 per cent), time in possession (18m 54s to 16m 41s), time in opposition 22 (3m 18s to 1m 51s), possession in opposition 22 (17.6 per cent to 11.2 per cent), time in opposition half (10m 25s to 7m 11s), possession in the opposition half (55.5 per cent)… and yet they were blitzed in the one area where it mattered most – on the scoreboard.
The key statistic in what unfolded was that the French registered 11 offloads to England’s three, a result-defining mismatch that began as early as that first clinical breakaway. That Charles Ollivon offload to Thibaud Flament out of the tackle attempted by Ollie Lawrence and Jack Willis was blindingly brilliant.
So too the subsequent sublime Flament pass, with Max Malins clinging onto him near halfway, leaving Ethan Dumortier all the freedom he needed to stretch clear down the famed old cabbage patch and give the easy assist to the supporting Thomas Ramos. It was beautiful and that set the tempo for a contest in which the visitors racked up nine linebreaks to England’s one.
France, though, weren’t all Harlem Globetrotters. A drill down elsewhere in the numbers revealed how two of their starting pack of eight, tighthead Dorian Aldegheri and lock Paul Willemse, remarkably didn’t touch the ball once in their respective 50-minute appearances.
That’s what you call a designated non-ball carry strategy where the role of the cleaners is clearly defined. None of the fancy stuff for them, just knockabout fun bundling opposition of the breakdown quickening up the ruck.
This approach continued with the replacements as Sipili Falatea, Reda Wardi, and Sekou Macalou were equally credited with zero touches despite their respective 30-, 19- and 18-minute appearances.
? Enjoy every single try from Twickenham ?
Full highlights ??#ENGvFRA | #GuinnessSixNations pic.twitter.com/Md8Vlkdfgw
— Guinness Six Nations (@SixNationsRugby) March 11, 2023
The marvellous bigger picture
While England fans would have stomped away from Twickenham livid to see their team demolished, the bigger picture on Saturday can’t be lost sight of – that France definitely have what it takes to win their own World Cup.
As England scaringly know to their cost following their 2015 pool elimination, the host nation doing well in the quadrennial global jamboree is so very important for the general health of the sport and what Les Bleus demonstrated with a swagger in London was that they have all the components necessary to light up tournament from September and get their nation heavily involved in the ebb and flow of the event.
Their hardcore supporters were embracingly noisy last month in Dublin despite losing that classic shootout with Ireland and they were in full voice again at Twickenham, cheering their team to the handsome victory that ensured the Six Nations title race will have a Super Saturday denouement.
France doing well was so very nourishing and what they achieved in England has certainly whetted the appetite for September 8 when that world festival gets going versus the All Blacks in Paris. It should be marvellous.
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G'day, Nick. Sorry to see you've gone from the other place. It will be a poorer experience for many because of it. As others mentioned, your detailed analysis and commitment to engaging with every person commenting on your articles stood out and was the main reason I ended up joining 5 years ago. I'll be spending a bit more time over here now I think.Go to comments
Think you boys forgot that Graham Henry coached the 2011 All Blacks and that Hansen/ Smith were assistants. The cross was shouldered by Henry. Erasmus' point here is that he and Nienaber are looking to win back to back WC's as head coaching combos. A bit of a reach because he is now the DoR and not the coach with the title anymore, but we all know who the real brain behind this Bok squad/strategy is.Go to comments