Feeble England’s Six Nations ambitions in tatters as French victory hands title to Ireland
Ireland claim Six Nations title by thrashing Scotland Jones laments England’s problems at breakdown
England head coach Eddie Jones fears his side are being left behind at the breakdown after a chastening 22-16 defeat by France allowed Ireland to snatch their NatWest Six Nations title.
Ireland had put themselves in the driving seat with a four-try 28-8 victory over Scotland, leaving England needing a bonus-point win of their own to keep alive hopes of retaining their crown. Yet a victory, let alone four tries, proved beyond England, who slumped to back-to-back defeats for the first time under Jones.
Many of the problems that afflicted England in their 25-13 defeat by Scotland two weeks ago resurfaced yesterday at the Stade de France. England were again dominated at the breakdown while they gave up a staggering 16 penalties. Referee Jaco Peyper also awarded France a penalty try and sent full-back Anthony Watson to the sinbin for his high tackle on France wing Benjamin Fall.
“It is just a tough period for us,” Jones said. “Any team that is developing, as we are, you go through these tough periods where the game does not love you. If the game loves us today then we might win the game, but we don’t get the bounce of ball, we don’t get that 50/50 decision and we are in the losers’ chair and it is not a very happy place.
“We did not learn quickly enough. Why? I am not 100 per cent sure. There’s no lack of effort. The game is changing a little bit. We are probably slow to adapt to it. We are not adapting to the referee’s interpretation at the ruck as well as we should. They are painful lessons at the moment.
“The breakdown’s certainly becoming more contestable. There are different interpretations of the ruck that are being refereed and the contest has increased enormously and we’re failing to cope with that at the moment and must find ways to cope with it. It’s as simple as that. It will take some time and won’t come quickly.”
Ireland, who eased past Scotland thanks to tries from Jacob Stockdale (two), Conor Murray and Sean Cronin, will now head to Twickenham on St Patrick’s Day seeking to complete their third Grand Slam.
“It’s a strange feeling to win the championship with a game to go,” Jonathan Sexton, the Ireland fly-half, said. “We know how difficult it will be [to win the Grand Slam]. The shoe is on the other foot from last year and I am sure they will be licking their lips.”
Asked if England would be like a wounded animal, Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt said: “I think they’re going to be really dangerous. The personnel that they have – they have an exceptional level.
“They have extreme pace. Up front, real experience. Everyone knows the size of the challenge. They haven’t lost there under Eddie Jones. It is about as much as possible trying to treat it like another game.”
England were emasculated in Paris, failing the test of manhood that Eddie Jones had set them, unable to prove that they had any sort of virility in their game.
Their title defence is over and a splinter of doubt has been driven hard into the heart of English rugby, an apprehension that this is deja vu all over again, that a side with supposed World Cup credentials are not all that they are cracked up to be.
This was a salutary evening on so many fronts. Never mind chasing a bonus point for four tries. They barely managed to fire a shot in anger, caught in a morass of their own making. Their discipline was appalling, conceding 16 penalties and having full-back Anthony Watson sin-binned in the second half and a penalty try awarded. They scored their only try through Jonny May late in the game when desperation had set in.
They stuttered and fretted, unable to bring any sweep or thrust to their game. It was sobering. The pack were unable to get a real toehold, although they did have a profitable evening at the scrum.
Much as the match was billed as a test of England’s 2019 World Cup credentials, the context of this encounter was that France have nothing like the status that once they had. At best, they are a middling side: at worst, a raggletaggle bunch of misfits.
Their victory over Italy in Marseille broke a dismal stretch of eight matches without a win. A sure sign of their instability and uncertainty is the fact that they have got through 70 players since the start of last season’s championship, a remarkable turnover.
As a sign of the current lack of belief in the team, the banner front page of L’Equipe yesterday morning read “God Save Les Bleus”. As English contributed to that splash headline so did England to their own downfall. They made France look good.
England were ragged and out-ofsorts, a far cry from the team that had shown so much conviction in winning back-to-back titles, their fall from grace in Dublin last year notwithstanding. Eddie Jones believed that he had constructed a side that could cope with whatever came their way. This last two weeks has shown the fallacy of that line of argument. One bad defeat can be due to adverse circumstance, one of those things. There is no such get-out clause after this loss, the first time that England have lost successive games away from home since 2009.
That is the measure of the performance, the significance of the result.
England have now lost three of their last five matches in the championship, a yardstick of mediocrity at best. In truth, it shows that they have well and truly stalled. Even a win over 2018 NatWest Six Nations champions Ireland at Twickenham, where England have not lost a tournament game in six years, would be hollow. With so many question marks raised, it would be a pyrrhic victory. England knew that, in theory, they had little option but to chase the game once news of Ireland’s bonus-point victory had been relayed from Dublin.
But they struggled to shake off French shackles, their own waywardness also undermining the cause.
England did manage to begin with intent, Nathan Hughes clattering into Francois Trinh-Duc and Ben Te’o getting half a yard on his opposite number, Mathieu Bastareaud. Unfortunately, they managed little else across a turgid first half.
England were flagrant. They have suffered for their ill-discipline and once again they transgressed when they came under pressure. Good sides ought not to yield so easily. England gave away position as well as points. Eight penalties had been conceded by half-time, Maxime Machenaud kicking
three goals to level the scores, 9-9 by the interval. Little has changed with France. Deny them ball, and they are vulnerable. By giving away so many penalties, England played into France’s hands.
There was some purchase at the setpieces where Mako Vunipola won a penalty at the first scrum against the redoubtable Rabah Slimani, Owen Farrell duly kicking the goal from 42 metres. Midway through the first half, the England scrum had another notch on their belt when France again buckled. Up stepped Elliot Daly to bang one over from three metres inside his own half.
England lost No8 Nathan Hughes to what looked a nasty knee injury in the 24th minute to be replaced by Sam Simmonds. There were also concerns about Maro Itoje whose head received a battering from the France No8 Marco Tauleigne.
England were on a salvage mission in the second half. The championship was on the slide. And that downward trajectory was to continue almost immediately. In the 49th minute England were slipshod in allowing France hooker Guilhem Guirado to pick up a loose ball and streak clear from a breakdown. England scrambled, again infringing, and when Trinh-Duc hoisted the ball left, it was only a high tackle by Watson on Benjamin Fall that saved the tryline. Not for long, Jaco Peyper rightly judging Watson’s tackle illegal, brandishing the yellow card and awarding a penalty try.
England looked rattled and almost conceded another try within three minutes after Remy Grosso scorched down the left flank. Stretched in defence, profligate in attack was the motif of the night, England wasting a giltedged chance when fluffing a line-out just five metres from the France line. Jones emptied his bench to make something happen. It was the last throw of the dice and it did at least yield something, a smartly-taken try from May from a tap down infield by Daly.
Farrell’s conversion gave England a smidgen of hope, but it was quickly extinguished when Simmonds gave away another penalty and Lionel Beauxis finished the job. Or, almost. England did have two further positions to strike from line-outs, but they butchered one through an overthrow and were then denied inches short. Victory would not have been merited.
Redemption for put-upon France, absolute dejection for England. Back to the drawing-board.
Beaten and bowed: James Haskell and his England team-mates slump to a defeat in Paris that ended their hopes of winning the NatWest Six Nations and marked the first time they have lost consecutive matches since Eddie Jones took over as head coach
Chastened: Eddie Jones insists England will learn from their defeat after a lack of discipline cost them
Down and out in Paris: England full-back Anthony Watson (left) prevents Benjamin Fall from scoring a try, but was sent to the sin-bin for a high tackle and France were awarded a penalty try; Jonny May (above) goes over as England try to stage a comeback and Courtney Lawes (right) competes for line-out ball with Sebastien Vahaamahina