CASTRES, FRANCE – A week ago, pundits were saying that France coach Philippe Saint-Andre was spending much of his time in the lead up to the Six Nations bemoaning the number of foreign imports in the Top 14.
Now, officially at least, he has praised the French league for allowing Les Bleus’ players to rest up for a fortnight before Saturday’s opening match against England.
And why not? Before Saturday, France had won only eight of their 21 matches under Saint-Andre and only two of 11 in the last 12 months. Admittedly, four of those matches were against New Zealand – but it’s hardly the form to take into a Six Nations tournament.
He allowed himself a wry smile as he listed the faults in France’s dramatic 26-24 victory at Stade de France. Les Bleus, he admitted, were too timid, lacklustre at the lineout, missed too many tackles and too many kicks.
France have won the Six Nations in the year after each Lions tour of the professional era, with Grand Slams in 1998, 2002 and 2010 and a solitary defeat by Scotland in 2006.
In the season after a Lions tour their best players are a little fresher, and a little fitter, than those in England, Ireland, Wales and Scotland.
This year, France have a schedule that sees them play England, Italy and Ireland at home. And, importantly, the FFR has finally persuaded the Top 14 clubs to agree to release French players from duty for the fortnight before the tournament.
There’s little doubt the French looked fresher out of the starting blocks against England. They were 16-6 up inside 22 minutes, with Yuann Huget touching down twice in the corner – the first time with just 30 seconds on the clock.
They finished stronger, too. England had done well to score 18 unanswered points either side of halftime to take the lead. Mike Brown and debutant Burrell both broke their international try ducks in an astonishing fightback.
In fact, the first 20 and the last four minutes apart, the visitors looked stronger. Their pack regained control after a storming start from the French forwards; their backs looked more threatening; new boys Nowell and Burrell showed grit, determination and promise; Danny Care fully justified his recall by running the show at the base of the scrum; and Owen Farrell actually started playing rugby rather than kicking the ball away.
With four minutes left, England were five points up and looked set to pick up the win. Then Gael Fickou, on as a replacement for Mathieu Bastareaud, made the most of a perfect decoy run by Toulouse teammate Maxime Medard to ghost through the last line of a stretched England defence and score under the posts.
Maxime Marchenaud stepped up to kick the points that put France back into the lead and send the Stade crowd wild. They ran down the clock comfortably enough to ensure they the day was theirs.
But it was a lucky victory built on individual brilliance and a tireless, never-say-die will. England looked better for the majority of the game and – quietly and away from the cameras – Saint-Andre will probably admit he has more work to do than his England opposite Stuart Lancaster.
Wales and Ireland did their bit in beating Italy and Scotland respectively. But Wales, in particular, will be less than happy with their performance under the roof at the Millennium Stadium.
Many will be wondering whether – in four games’ time – if this match will be seen as the invaluable loosener that all champion teams should be allowed as their campaign gets under way, or the day Wales showed signs of wobbling.
They never really looked like losing against Italy, but the 23-15 scoreline suggests all did not go Wales’s way. In fact, if they keep performing like this, it surely won’t be long before the Azurri are celebrating only their second-ever Six Nations away victory.
The ‘Wales are slow starters’ argument was being bandied about quite a bit on Saturday. That’s probably due in no small part to last year’s opening match, when they were still busy warming up while Ireland were busy racing into a 23-point lead.
This year, it shouldn’t have been a fearful glimmer in the eye of the most ardent daffodil wearer. But it was, which probably suggests how under-par the performance was. In the end Wales did just about enough to justify their win, with Alex Cuthbert and Scott Williams crossing the tryline and Leigh Halfpenny doing just what new employers Toulon hope he will do with the boot.
But Italy broke through their defences twice, with outstanding centre Michele Campagnaro the beneficiary each time – and things could have been very different had captain incredible Sergio Parisse not had a try disallowed for a knock on.
Warren Gatlend will know that another performance like this against Ireland in Dublin next weekend could prove very damaging to their title hopes.
Even without Paul O’Connell, who was a late withdrawal after picking up a chest infection, Ireland were too strong, too quick, too clever for honest Scotland. Ulster lock Dan Tuohy filled in for the indisposed skipper in the lineout, while Heaslip took over captaincy duties, but
The talismanic second row is expected to return for next week’s match against Wales.
After a nervy first half, when the Scots threatened to turn an early possessional and positional advantage into points, the Irish bossed the second period and were worth their 28-6 win.
Andrew Trimble scored just before the halftime whistle to calm Irish nerves, while Rob Kearney and Heaslip added tries of their own in the second period.
It was this killer instinct – to know just what to do with the tryline beckoning that was the difference between the two sides.
Outgoing coach Scott Johnson said: “We could not convert when we got into their red zone,” he said. “When they got their chances, they converted.
“We could not keep the pressure on. We show good patches of rugby, but we are not doing it often enough.”
However, Johnson remains optimistic that his side will improve, with England their next opposition at Murrayfield after their defeat by France.
“With more time in the saddle, they will get better,” he said.
England, you have been warned…
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