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Tuesday, September 27, 2022

Jones’s claims of England progress ring hollow as France highlight gulf | Six Nations 2022

You could measure the gap between England and France by the 12 points difference on the scoreboard. Or you could measure it by the inches between Ben Youngs’ outstretched hand and Antoine Dupont’s shorts as Youngs launched himself headfirst into a futile dive after the best player in the world and tried to drag him back as he cut England apart. You could measure it in the feet England were shoved backwards at the scrum just before half-time where they conceded yet another set-piece penalty, or you could measure it by the acres of space France found out on the right wing when they created the three-on-one overlap that led to their first try.

The answer’s the same either way: a lot, and more than England’s coach, Eddie Jones, is letting on.

Really, the best way to capture the distance between them might be in years. France have been building towards this grand slam ever since the last World Cup, when their current coach, Fabien Galthié, was already in place, deputy and heir apparent, to his predecessor, Jacques Brunel. In the years since, Galthié and his boss, Bernard Laporte, have turned France’s run at the World Cup they host next year into a national project. They haven’t just put together a team of coaches and a squad of players, but they have pulled in the Top 14 clubs and the French fans, too. There’s a sense that everyone’s pulling in the same direction.

So Galthié’s team have been three years in the making. Jones’s, on the other hand, feels like they have barely had three weeks. Somehow they are still starting out all over. That’s Jones’s choice, as he chops and drops and changes his backroom staff, his training squad and his match-day 23, while he tries to work out exactly what “new England” looks like. He keeps talking about how they are steps forward, but it’s beginning to feel as if they are standing still. He was at it again on Saturday night. “We’re moving in the right direction,” Jones said, “we’re not far away.”

They are. In the first half, in particular, England were out of their depth. They showed plenty of heart, but they weren’t strong enough to break France open, weren’t fast enough to stretch them apart, weren’t slick enough to outsmart them, or disciplined enough to shut them down and stop them scoring. For all their effort, they didn’t once make it into the French 22 in those first 40 minutes and were fortunate that they were only 18-6 down at the break. Their play all felt over-engineered, dependent on training-ground ploys such as having Ellis Genge truck the ball up from deep, or Marcus Smith kick it crossfield.

Marcus Smith
Marcus Smith finally started to show why he was picked in the second half. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/INPHO/Shutterstock

It was as if they were playing to a formula they had concocted during the week and decided to stick with it even though it wasn’t working for them. And the trouble was, in the time it took them to change it up, France had all but gone and won the game. They’ve never once been behind at half-time in any of 26 Tests they’ve played since Galthié became head coach. And England’s best chance of beating them here depended on changing that by getting ahead and putting them under a kind of pressure they had never experienced before. Instead, England worked hard and went nowhere, while making sloppy mistakes, and giving away penalties.

In the second half, presumably after Jones and his fellow coaches had intervened, England did change the way they were playing. Smith, who played the first half as if he was doing his best impression of Owen Farrell, finally started to do the things that got him picked in the first place, like run and pass. And there was a moment there when it did all click: Joe Marchant made a fine break off a lineout and, after he was caught by the shorts, Smith stepped up, worked an intricate little loop with Jamie George, fed the ball on to Elliot Daly, who sent it on again to Freddie Steward, who scored in the corner. Here at last was a vision of an England who could compete with the best team in the world.

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Steward, who had his best game yet, launched another attack with a superb catch off his own garryowen, Henry Slade was up at first receiver, spitting fast flat passes, and then the moment went again, while Smith tucked in behind him. For those 15 minutes, England played with the intensity and verve they needed to display for the whole 80 if they were going to win this match.

If Jones is right, and they really are moving forwards, England will be back here in 20 months or so, when, according to his plan, they will be playing in the World Cup semi-finals, maybe against this same French team. It sounds a long time now, but it only adds up to a handful of games, three in the summer on tour in Australia, three more in the autumn, and another run at the Six Nations, then they are into the warm-ups. Eleven games then, just under 15 hours of match time. It’s not long to make up that gap, however you measure it.

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