England face tough French exam

Rarely has the term “Le Crunch”, often used to describe internationals between England and France, been more appropriate than for Saturday’s World Cup semifinal at the Stade de France.

The old rivals will meet for the 90th time, knowing that defeat for either side could signal the end of some distinguished rugby careers, be it England fullback Jason Robinson, retiring after the World Cup, or France coach Bernard Laporte, who next month is set to become a junior sports minister in the French government.

Both sides, who have each opted to retain the same team from the quarterfinals, have had similar routes to the last four.

Hosts France lost the opening match of the tournament 12-17 to Argentina while champions England, after a mediocre opening win over the United States, were humiliated by a 0-36 loss to South Africa—the Pumas’ opponents in Sunday’s second semifinal—their record World Cup defeat.

They too regrouped and much of the forward power that did so much to help them win the World Cup in 2003 was in evidence last weekend during a 12-10 victory over Australia where, with loosehead prop Andrew Sheridan leading the way, they pulverised the Wallabies’ scrum in Marseille and beat them convincingly at the breakdown.

But a lack of cutting edge in midfield, something that has been a problem for England since former captain Martin Johnson lifted the Webb Ellis Trophy, meant they were unable to score a try against Australia, with all too often the last pass going astray or the man in possession taking the wrong option.

It is hard to believe that England can get away with such wastefulness this weekend, especially if the French defence is as aggressive as it was against New Zealand during a 20-18 quarterfinal win over the tournament favourites in Cardiff, which trumped the champions’ last eight success earlier in the day for its shock value.

England coach Brian Ashton has called for “ruthless composure” from his side when they are in sight of the opposition try-line and 36-year-old inside centre Mike Catt, who has held off the challenge to his place from Andy Farrell, added: “We have to get the balance better and we’ll see how we go because it’s the first time that we have done that [running the ball] for a while.”

Jonny Wilkinson, who scored all of England’s points during their 24-7 semifinal win over France four years ago in Sydney, had an off-day with the boost last Saturday and missed three out of seven penalty attempts.

Not for the first time this tournament, the flyhalf raised concerns about the quality of the balls being used at the World Cup. But, as he showed when landing the last-ditch drop-goal that won England the trophy in 2003, Wilkinson’s nerve is not in doubt.

“He is the motor of the team,” Laporte said of Wilkinson.
“You can see that England do not perform as well when he is not there.

“They are good and one mustn’t forget that it was England who stopped us from winning the Grand Slam this year.”

France captain Raphael Ibanez, who plays alongside England skipper Phil Vickery in the front row at London Wasps, leads a pack every bit as battle-hardened as that of the champions.

Behind the scrum, England face a distinct tactical challenge with France again set to place a heavy emphasis on the big boots of both flyhalf Lionel Beauxis and newly installed fullback Damien Traille.

Meanwhile Frederic Michalak, who veers between the sublime, as he showed with a well-timed run just minutes after coming on against New Zealand which led to Yannick Jauzion’s try, and the reckless, as was seen soon afterwards by a cross-kick from inside his own 22, waits on the bench.

The kicking game of Beauxis, Traille and wing Cedric Heymans may not have been pretty against the All Blacks, but it was effective as France’s English defence coach, Dave Ellis, observed.

“We had to have a good kicking strategy so they [New Zealand] couldn’t play in the areas they wanted to.”

Looking ahead, Ellis added: “The France team is much more complete now than it was in the last World Cup. There’s no real weakness.”

Yet just as the All Blacks go from World Cup to World Cup dogged by questions over their temperament, so do France, who’ve yet to win rugby union’s greatest prize, about their ability to produce two big back-to-back victories.

Brilliant semifinal wins in 1987 and 1999, over Australia and New Zealand respectively, were followed by huge let downs in the finals themselves.

Saturday will see if their latest success was another glorious one-off or the forerunner to an even greater triumph.—Sapa-AFP

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