England started deserved favourites and after some uncertainty prevailed. The technical excellence and physicality of their forward effort, a strangling defensive screen, the opportunism of the talisman center Manu Tuilagi, team captain Robshaw’s ever maturing leadership, clarity by their decision makers and class goal kicking by Farrell and Flood proved the difference. England in my view have the best all round coaching team on the planet at present – all four complement each other and under Stuart Lancaster’s leadership and clear vision are prospering. At last an English coach preparing an English team to play to their strengths. It is obvious that Lancaster has worked hard to get the culture and the spirit of the team right both on and off the field. He has taken the time to instill his way of doing things and has selected his staff, players and leaders accordingly. Their win in the Autumn, albeit against a wearied All Blacks team, was meritorious in its execution as much as its conception. The English game plan, aligned with an obvious gelling in the ranks marks them as a competent and extremely hard unit to break down.
French Rugby however, is in the doldrums at present. Philippe St.Andre is a gifted but enigmatic coach but he has exactly the same problems that Clive Woodward faced when he first came into the English Coaching job over a decade ago. There are problems aplenty and a quick fix is nowhere to be seen let alone contemplated in the present French Rugby climate. It certainly looks like French rugby players and coaches are being moulded and channelled into money making appendages for the Top 14 clubs, a ludicrous situation for any coach of the national team to be operating under, in and around.
Some of these top 14 clubs in France have annual budgets of US$50million and all of them depend upon staying in the top 14 for guaranteed financial security. Sponsorship deals,lucrative European and World Wide pay TV deals, crowds are the lifeblood of the professional game in France. It is now a clear case of the sting in the big tail wagging the dog and how. Club Rugby in France is the most gladiatorial, physical and brutal form of the game now being played anywhere in the world. Clubs, their sponsors, owners and Presidents now have a greater say than the FFR, French Federation Rugby. St. Andre had to plead to get even one week of training exemption for his squad members before their first RBS 6 nations fixture. It was a loss, and a bad one at that, to Italy who have since gone on to flatter and under achieve. Consequently, three games in to the 2013 RBS 6 nations tournament sees France with their worst start in decades. You can almost hear the blades being sharpened on the guillotine under the Bastille.
The other thing that this has created is a competition where the best international players are now coming to play, not in their superannuation collecting years, but in their prime. The French top 14 is literally an international tournament where the players are bigger, faster and stronger. Winning is paramount – the means befits the end. The French top 14 has metamorphosed into a hybrid of rugby, gridiron and Rugby League – interminable bashing it up and warlike defence. Where money is involved there will always be this warring of the worlds.
No wonder the French ‘joie de vivre’, bonhomie and flair are missing. That type of play doesn’t win in the gladiators arena that is French Rugby. It is one off runners, big defence and pin point kicking for territorial and possessional gain. The FFR need to limit the amount of overseas players contracted in the top 14 and they definitely need to work out a compromise with the French National coach. Playing for the tricolours should be the pinnacle and not an add-on, a chore. This is only my summation and my opinion of the conundrum that is now French Rugby. I fear that the days of attack orientated, free flowing and joyous ball movement are but a memory consigned to those of us old enough to remember Jo Maso, Lux, Camberabero, Jean-Pierre Rives, Walter Spanghero, Dauga, Sella, Cordinou.
I, for one, wish to see the tricolour flying proud and free again on the rugby fields of the world. The past players and great French teams of yesteryear gave us indelible memories of a style of rugby that is synonymous of the way we love to see the great game played. Of freedom of spirit and expression, of joy and spontaneity, of ball movement and different running lines, of inventive skill and audacity, of all that has been and is French. May the style of rugby that is deep rooted in their DNA and their collective being never be lost to commercialism and avarice. Vive le rugby de la France.
In the game last sat., Fofana, an extremely gifted centre in the Sella/Mesnel mould, scored one of the greatest individual tries ever seen in this fixture; but alas, it was far too little, too late. Even this brilliance, coupled with the excellent work of their halves Parra and Trinh-Duc,who should have been selected in the first place, could put France no nearer to their first win in the RBS championship. This now stretches back 6 games, the first 3 this year and the last 3 in 2012.
So England, and rightly so with this form, are firm favourites to take out the triple crown and the grand slam. But beware, Wales can be the stoppers in the last game scheduled this year and Scotland could be the lion that sleeps. Scott Johnson seems to have woken the Scots up and they are playing well in two distinctly different styles which have both brought them reward. Only 160 minutes stand in the way of destiny and greatness for Stuart Lancaster and his English team. I am sure that his level headed and pragmatic nature, his renown attention to detail, his comprehensive preparation but most importantly his outwardly calm demeanour will stand them in good stead. Time will now tell as it always does.