The Six Nations kicked-off with a thumping win for Wales over Italy, while Ireland scraped through a dogfight against Scotland. The final game of the weekend – between France and England – was perhaps the most anticipated, given that France were the tournament’s unknown quantity with new head coach Fabien Gautier opting to pick nineteen uncapped players and only one player over the age of 30.
Eddie Jones’ England had to lick their wounds after being dominated in the World Cup final; moreover, a strong core of the England squad are Saracens players, and so we had no idea what kind of effect the salary cap breach would have on the national team.
It was France who emerged victorious, in an uncharacteristic performance in which they were disciplined in defence and attacked with real cohesion. The work of former-Wales defence coach Shawn Edwards is already paying dividends, keeping England scoreless until the 58th minute when Jonny May crossed over after a brilliant run, exhibiting his pace to beat four defenders, before scoring another brilliant individual try.
With Kyle Sinckler overrunning the ball, it was never a secure maul
England looked out of sorts for the whole game. Since Eddie Jones has taken over England have been notorious for their fast starts to games, but not against France. Under Jones, England frequently attempt to keep deep and force the opposition to clear their lines into touch, allowing the team’s set-piece expertise to come into play. It was no different against France. Off the second phase from the lineout, England shaped up to create an in-field maul, a tactic that South Africa used against them to good effect in the World Cup final as it won them the decisive penalty that took the Springboks beyond England.
However, unlike their south African counterparts, the England pack didn’t set the maul up properly; with Kyle Sinckler overrunning the ball, it was never a secure maul, allowing France to stop it with relative ease. In fact, the French only had to commit one player to the maul, giving them 14 players in the defensive line to halt England’s next move. England’s game is based purely on building pressure on the opposition from scoring early, once they are ahead they just keep the scoreboard ticking over because they know they don’t have to do anything extraordinary to maintain the lead as long as they defend well.
France, however, were explosive from the get-go, with Rattez scoring a well worked try after six minutes. French scrum half Antoine Dupont had an excellent game as his passing was accurate and made clever sniping runs. The same cannot be said for England’s scrumhalf Ben Youngs who had a poor game, but he wasn’t alone.
Maro Itoje, who Warren Gatland tipped as a potential Lions captain in 2021, consistently gave away needless penalties that let France off the hook
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why England were so bad. It was a drizzly night in Paris, which didn’t help, as England made a number of crucial knock-ons; George Furbank, on his debut, was a notable culprit. Even captain Owen Farrell dropped the ball twice with no real pressure on him. It is always hard to chase a game in the rain, so this is when the leaders of the team need to stand up and take the game by the scruff of the neck; instead England looked devoid of any character
Maro Itoje, who Warren Gatland tipped as a potential Lions captain in 2021, consistently gave away needless penalties that let France off the hook many times. Owen Farrell did his best but was having an off night, which could be down to this being his first game at #12 since the World Cup. The selection of Ben Curry at number 8 was particularly confusing, he was imperious on the flank during the World Cup. Curry never looked comfortable at the base of the scrum.
The rest of the tournament is shaping up to be very exciting
The injury to Billy Vunipola is massive, as he’s arguably the best number 8 in the world. It was always going to be a challenge to replace him, hence Jones decided not to pick a specialised number 8 in his squad, despite Alex Dombrandt playing out of his skin for Harlequins. England lacked any real heavy ball carriers when Tuilagi went off injured, and England’s game seemed to lack creativity as a result. George Furbank was also thrown into the deep end by Jones and he struggled. They will look to make amends in the Calcutta Cup next weekend, but the Auld enemy showed signs of great attacking rugby with a much-improved defence under Steve Tandy.
The French were the standout performers of the weekend, but any call for them being Grand Slam champions may be premature. Shawn Edwards has done an unbelievable job in tightening up the French defence and not allowing soft tries. However, Edward’s mentality is based on working yourself to the bone, something which French teams have often been accused of not doing. It’s a massive culture shock and will take time to adjust, the two tries from Jonny May, although brilliant, did smell of French fatigue. The rest of the tournament is shaping up to be very exciting.