Stuart Lancaster knows his England side must improve on their performance in Saturday night's 25-20 loss at the Stade de France. We pick out five issues to put right before the World Cup.
There were some small crumbs of comfort for Stuart Lancaster to take from Paris. Mako Vunipola, Nick Easter and Danny Cipriani excelled from the bench, wing Jack Nowell grafted all evening and the final ten minutes showcased phenomenal fitness levels.
But inaccuracies and concentration lapses littered England’s opening 70 minutes. A five-point margin of defeat flattered them. The biggest positive was that such a display happened in rehearsal rather than at Twickenham during the Rugby World Cup. A similar display against Fiji, Wales or Australia would really be a disaster – perhaps tournament-ending.
We take a look at five areas that Lancaster and his coaches will be focussing on over the next four weeks.
Breakdown discipline and decision-making
Captain Chris Robshaw refused to sugarcoat a first half that saw England concede seven penalties. The openside flanker bemoaned “shocking” discipline levels. And he was spot on.
Five three-pointers were kicked to give France a 15-6 lead at half-time, but just as damaging as scoreboard pressure was the fact that the infringements did not allow England any foothold. At the end of 40 minutes, they could boast just 31 per cent of possession and 30 per cent of territory.
Bar the scrum setbacks – which we will come onto later – none of the offences were forced, either. England’s defence made 115 tackles and missed just 13. Aside from Yoann Huget‘s sensational solo try, Andy Farrell’s system stayed firm.
This misjudgment from Dan Cole offered up an easy chance for Frédéric Michalak and epitomised some unnecessary overzealousness at the breakdown:
An excellent piece of spoiling from Ben Youngs starts off this sequence. He sees Yoann Maestri is holding the ball above the floor for Damien Chouly…
…and clasps on. Referee Jaco Peyper rules that a maul has been formed, so Youngs must keep the ball above ground to force the turnover:
However, Cole comes right around to hold up Chouly from behind:
The tighthead would be perfectly legal were this merely a tackle. Peyper’s maul call means Cole should have entered the breakdown from behind the back foot, though. A penalty is awarded to France.
Clearly indicating to Peyper that he had not heard the maul declared, Cole feels hard done by:
Of course, his annoyance does not matter. The result means it was a poor decision, just like a later intervention from James Haskell:
This situation comes about as England are on the front foot. Joe Launchbury has charged down Michalak and, though Mathieu Bastareaud covers well before outstripping Billy Vunipola, Cole and Courtney Lawes take the centre low.
Haskell has made up a great deal of ground, as the below screenshot shows:
And swoops to compete for the ball on the floor:
However, Peyper adjudges that Haskell is not supporting his own bodyweight:
France could kick to touch, relieving pressure and building an attacking platform to test England once more. Les Bleus had been let off the hook by sheer overeagerness.
All eight members of England’s pack were starting their first match of the season. While these mistakes were slightly worrying, rustiness was probably the overriding cause.
In a canny selection from Philippe Saint-André – stop sniggering – France deployed a a spine of No 8 Louis Picamoles, lock Maestri and hooker Guilhem Guirado after the same trio received significant game-time at Twickenham last week. As such, France’s pack seemed far more cohesive.
England did manage glimpses of class up front. Cole forced a penalty for his team’s first points:
The visitors set themselves from a restart and steam up onto Chouly, who is the obvious receiver:
Tom Youngs, tireless as ever in the loose, takes the France back-rower low…
…and shows good discipline to roll away from the tackle area, freeing up Cole to jackal. Billy Vunipola has a subtle role too. He latches on, providing added ballast so it is more difficult for France to clear Cole:
This was a rare triumph for England in the first half, though. It started to go wrong from their first very attack.
Launchbury batted back Tom Youngs’ opening lineout throw and Nowell bypassed two-would-be tacklers to give England front-foot ball. Then this happened:
As Ben Youngs passes out to Billy Vunipola, look at George Ford:
Screaming for a pass, the Bath Rugby fly-half has identified that the French defence is rather narrow. Indeed, with five men outside him and the hosts’ wings covering in the back field, there is scope to exploit an overlap from deep:
A swivel-pass from the first receiver – a pattern England use often – would have proved dangerous here. Miscommunication means Billy Vunipola trucks it up with just Cole for support. France swarm him and an over-ambitious offload goes to the floor:
Ford kicked from the next phase, all impetus from the attack exhausted.
In the early exchanges of the second half though, things improved:
As Jonny May ships right to Billy Vunipola and the No 8 turns to find Ford, the key man to watch in the France line is skipper Pascal Pape. His shoulders are facing in, anticipating a narrow carry:
After a further pass to Burrell, Pape has pinched in and is wrong-footed. The centre has enough space to arc outside his man with ease:
England had more joy manipulating the French defence in the final stages, but by then it was too late.
You can tell a great deal about a team from their reaction to a slip-up. When things are going well, it is easy to forget and move onto the next job. Under the cosh, errors can easily exasperate.
When Ford booted downfield from Billy Vunipola’s carry above, an unfortunate chain reaction started:
Luther Burrell went into Saturday night seven days after witnessing a fine outing for the midfield combination of Sam Burgess and Henry Slade. The Northampton Saint needed to respond, and his chase here was excellent, completed by a robust challenge on Scott Spedding:
Haskell is on hand to threaten the tackle area and Guirado could have been penalised for entering into the side of the ruck:
Instead, Peyper pings Burrell, who is trapped over the ball and impeding France’s attempt to recycle:
Spedding got to his feet, brushed himself off and landed a 55-metre penalty to give France a 3-0 lead. Ford then rushed the restart and put it out on the full:
One error had become two, and France were back in the ascendancy with a scrum on halfway. Ford finished strongly, but vicious circles can spiral quickly if a player loses their composure for just a second.
Graham Rowntree is among the premier forwards coaches on the planet and his pride will be hurting. For the second successive game, England endured difficulties at the set-piece.
For so long a reliable platform, the lineout went awry quickly. This Tom Youngs’ throw, from good field position, was nicked by Bernard Le Roux:
Lifting two jumpers to minimise Youngs’ margin for error, France clearly targeted this area. The feed is not far off its target, but Le Roux cleverly slips his right hand in front of Lawes (blue circle) and his side come away with the ball:
Now, Tom Youngs’ statistics in the Aviva Premiership are excellent. He is capable of delivering better arrows, but the calling system clearly needs refinement too.
The lineout became another site for English indiscipline too. Here, Robshaw and Lawes combine to stifle a driving maul:
Even so, a penalty to France resulted. Panning out, we see that Peyper is watching Billy Vunipola, stationed in midfield:
The Saracen encroaches too early. Peyper points him out and blows the whistle, the complaints of Michalak (circled) ringing in his ears:
Debutant Jamie George saw his first throw in Test rugby pinched at the front. That said, a subsequent effort demonstrated some excellent core skills:
Finding Lawes at the tail at the peak of his jump, England have a pristine launchpad:
The scrum was more even, both teams winning four and losing one of their five put-ins.
Still, the sight of England getting so comprehensively splintered as they were at this first-half set piece is not one we are used to:
Haskell and Robshaw end up facing 90 degrees to the right of their initial position, underlining the dominance of the French forwards, all of whom have their heads facing towards the England line:
Rowntree must patch things up before Ireland visit Twickenham.
Choosing the time to go direct
Three slick tries characterised last weekend’s win for England, but the backline stuttered at the start in Paris, especially from first phase. This move from a lineout broke down as Mike Brown knocked on:
Deployed at first receiver, Jonathan Joseph simply takes the wrong option here. As he goes to the line, Bastareaud anticipates a pass out the back to Ford. He begins to drift left, leaving a gap between himself and Michalak.
Burrell, coming from out to in on an potent line, could have caused havoc:
Instead, Ford receives the ball and Bastareaud slides onto him. Wesley Fofana covers May and Noa Nakaitaci has Brown under close surveillance:
This attempted pattern from a scrum was similarly ineffective, Bastareaud halting a lateral move with a burly hit on Nowell:
England were far more effective when holding defenders and running punchy angles. Watch Burrell cannon over the gain-line here:
A lovely pull-back pass from Launchbury gives Joseph space to take on the France line. He singles out Michalak, who plants his feet, and Burrell can attack the left shoulder of Bastareaud:
Haskell found success stepping back towards the ruck shortly after half-time:
And these two carries directly foreshadowed Joseph’s try in the 78th minute:
Easter’s relationship with clubmate Danny Care comes to the fore here. As the scrum-half darts across the field, he cuts an acute angle against the grain…
…takes Care’s offload skilfully…
England recycle rapidly and Billy Vunipola is next to come off Care’s shoulder. He also steps off his right foot…
…and both Vincent Debaty and Remi Tales must commit to the tackle:
Two phases later, Joseph went over in the left-hand corner. Ford converted to set up a grandstand finish but Lancaster’s charges could not quite land what would have been a ludicrous heist.
Now England must use this sharp shock to shake off the rustiness and deliver something far more cohesive when Ireland arrive at Twickenham in a fortnight. Then, we will find out a great deal more about their World Cup prospects.