Perhaps the worst thing about watching England’s performance at the weekend against France, and there were a fair few to choose from, was imagining the comments and critique offered up by pundits and the public in the aftermath.
Before the match had even finished I could already see the wave of self-righteous anger bearing down from comments sections and forums alike bemoaning the performance of the squad. Of course, there were many aspects to the performance to be critical about. The now somewhat infamous lineout that was thrown directly into the back of the head of a player two meters away only to feebly bounce off and go loose will probably feature in my nightmares for some time to come. I imagine it will have a feel of those dreams where you can’t quite move your legs fast enough to get out the way of an oncoming storm.
In a lot of ways, this is an apt description of England’s performance. It never really got going and felt completely undercooked for at least the first half of the match. There was no energy, no attacking edge to the squad, reactive rather than proactive.
Although there was much to reflect on from the performance, and although the match really did make for an uncomfortable and tense viewing experience, I really do believe there were more positives than negatives to take away. It is difficult to come out firing all cylinders in such an intense competition, as was demonstrated by Ireland and Wales in their opening games.
It is all very well for Eddie Jones to dismiss some of the injury challenges facing England in the run up to the opening match. The fact remains however, that England were missing a significant amount of world class players from their opening 15 that are difficult to replace. Add to this mix a significant re-shuffle to the squad, players starting in untested positions, and a new mix of starting forwards and you get a potential recipe for disaster.
Yes, the overall performance was flawed, but it speaks volumes of the maturity of the squad that when faced with these difficulties, they maintained composure, dug deep and found the win. Having gone 14 games without a loss it would seem inevitable that, at some point, the level of intensity of play would drop. No team can be dazzling all the time, but they can be reliably successful. For me, this was the biggest point to take away from the opening game. Despite the poor start, injuries and lack of intensity, England still came away with the win, demonstrating the impact of a quality bench and depth of character of each player involved.
Eddie Jones is far too shrewd a coach to have learned nothing from this encounter and will take appropriate steps to help improve performance before the squad takes on Wales in Cardiff at the weekend. His comments in the media regarding Wales and the past performance of England in Cardiff have been seen by many as stupid and provocative. However, the more perceptive among us know that he doesn’t really believe in the statement, but that it has served a purpose in keeping the attention and ire of the media on himself rather than on the players.