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FEATURE France used to fear England - have the tables turned?

France used to fear England - have the tables turned?
3 months ago

There are many French rugby players still haunted by the white shirt of England. The generation which had the misfortune to be born around the same time as Will Carling, whose England side inflicted eight consecutive defeats on Les Bleus between 1989 and 1995, including a World Cup quarter-final shellacking in 1991.

Franck Mesnel recalled Carling’s England – which included wily old campaigners such Brian Moore, Dean Richards and Wade Dooley – preyed on the excitability and indiscipline of the Frenchmen. ‘The line between maximum commitment and stupidity is subtle at the highest level,’ mused Mesnel. ‘The English manoeuvred us in a cartoonish way… and it worked.’

The generation which followed fared no better. ‘The only memories I have of England and the English are unpleasant ones,’ said Imanol Harinordoquy, the great France No 8, who lost to England in the 2003 and 2007 World Cup semi-finals. ‘I despise them as much as they despise everybody else. And as long as we beat England I wouldn’t mind if we lost every other game in the Six Nations.’

Imanol Harinordoquy fought many battles against England, losing two Rugby World Cup semi-finals to the Red Rose (Photo by PAUL ELLIS/Getty Images)

What seemed to rile Harinordoquy most was the cold-bloodedness of the English. Win, lose or draw, titans such as Jonny Wilkinson, Martin Johnson and Richard Hill displayed scant emotion. They just shook the hands of the French and told them ‘Good game’. For Harinordoquy it was insufferable English condescension.

One of Harinordoquy’s team-mates, Olivier Magne, was more gracious in his recollections of those times. He conceded Les Bleus often had only themselves to blame for their defeats against England. ‘In the French team, I’ve sometimes seen players out of sorts because they were completely carried away by emotion,’ he said. ‘That’s very rare with the English.’

Or at least it was.

Having ‘a bit of edge’ can help a team, but it can also hinder it if one strays over that edge.

Naturally, Harinordoquy was beside himself with joy 12 months ago when France rubbed English noses in the dirt. 53-10 at Twickenham! Incroyable! It was a scoreline which wiped away years of hurt and humiliation, that era between 1989 and 2019 when England won 21 of their 31 Six Nations encounters against France, including some bona fide thumpings: 31-13 at the Parc des Princes in 1992, 48-19 at Twickenham in 2001, 34-10 at the same venue eight years later and that 44-8 annihilation in 2019.

Since the defeat five years ago, France have won three of their four Six Nations matches against England. The aura of invincibility has dissolved. This in part can be put down to the influence of Fabien Galthie and his coaching staff, particularly Shaun Edwards, but also because of a radical transformation in England, a transformation a decade in the making.

The discipline and sangfroid which unhinged Harinordoquy and his teammates has vanished, to be replaced by recklessness and volatility. England had never received a red card in the Six Nations until 2020, when Manu Tuilagi was sent off against Wales. They’ve had two more since, and Tom Curry’s dismissal against Argentina in September was the first time an Englishman has seen red in the World Cup. That followed hot on the heels of the red cards received by Owen Farrell and Billy Vunipola in August friendlies.

Owen Farrell has been criticised for his interactions with referees while captaining England (Photo by PA)

Dare one say it, England had become French in their temperament. Where once coaches of England nominated ice-cool captains, they plumped instead for wild hotheads. Dylan Hartley, banned for a total of 60 weeks in the course of his career for biting, punching, eye-gouging, verbally abusing a referee, elbowing and headbutting. Then Farrell took over; no-one could ever doubt his commitment to the England cause but he frequently allowed his emotion to get the better of him, either in his decision making or in querying referees’ calls.

A team takes its examples from its captain. James Haskell praised Hartley in 2016 for wearing ‘his heart on his sleeve’. He added: ‘Having a bit of edge and a bit of personality and a bit of whatever it might be, right or wrong, good or bad, can help a team.’

Having ‘a bit of edge’ can help a team, but it can also hinder it if one strays over that edge. Haskell knows all about that. He was sent to the sin bin six times during Six Nations matches, more than any other Englishman.

There will be fewer fans in the stadium on Saturday night than normal but they’ll be less bourgeois and more boisterous than the Paris crowd.

A short-tempered captain sends a signal to the opposition: this is a team which can be wound up. It was what England did so masterfully to France in the 1990s, what Mesnel described as manoeuvring ‘us in a cartoonish way’. No-one was better at sending the French team on manoeuvres than Moore, who in 1995 famously declared  ‘playing France is like facing 15 Eric Cantonas; they are brilliant but brutal’. This wasn’t long after Manchester United’s favourite Frenchman had leapt into the stand at Crystal Palace to karate kick an opposition fan.

Jamie George’s fuse is far longer than Farrell’s and Hartley’s, and his reign as England captain has got off to a promising start in terms of discipline; only Wales (28) have conceded fewer penalties than England’s tally of 30 so far in this Six Nations, which is fifteen fewer than Ireland.

Overall, it hasn’t been a bad championship for England: three wins from four with only that wretched performance in Edinburgh a throwback to recent Six Nations debacles.

Last Saturday’s victory against Ireland has been hailed as England’s best since they beat the All Blacks in the 2019 World Cup semi-final. Can they follow it up with a triumph over the French in Lyon or was last week just a one-off? That was another hallmark of French teams back in the day: they always had one good game in them each championship, when everything clicked and no-one lost their heads.

A strong second-half showing propelled France to victory over Wales in Cardiff on Sunday, but their championship to date has been less than stellar (Photo Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

Both England and France are in the process of rebuilding, and for numerous players this will be their first ‘Le Crunch’. For everyone, it will be the first time France host England in Lyon. The city’s stadium holds 60,000 – 20,000 fewer than Stade de France in Paris – but Lyon is in the southeast of the country, France’s rugby heartlands: Clermont, Bourgoin, Oyonnax and Grenoble are all relatively close at hand.

There will be fewer fans in the stadium on Saturday night than normal but they’ll be less bourgeois and more boisterous than the Paris crowd. The atmosphere will be red hot. It could be a coming-of-age night for England’s young team, if they walk that fine line between ‘maximum commitment and stupidity’, to paraphrase Mesnel. If they don’t, it will be a coming-apart-at-the-seams evening.


Turlough 92 days ago

7 days since maximum emotional and physical performance against Ireland. Less preparation for France and element of suprise used on Ireland. A big physical French team with fast backs may not be what England want. Unlike Ireland, Fickou will make sure the back line is intelligent in defense and kick chase.

Jérémie 92 days ago

Lyon in the southeast ? It’s the far north for people from the south ! 😅
We’re always excited to play the English but, honestly, who’s affraid of this team today ? I really hope it will change : rugby need a strong England that we all love to hate 😋 (relax : I’m joking !)
Aaaah, even when our teams aren’t in a good shape… Le Crunch is Le Crunch 😉

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