25 Feb 2011

Let's crunch again

This photograph shows the scoreboard just after half-time at the Twickenham rugby ground during the last game played between England and France in the stadium that will harbour this Saturday's game between these two countries. I realise that, in showing it, I risk irritating some of my many French friends. Tant pis! The reason I have done so is not to suggest that this score (which included four tries) will be equalled in tomorrow's game. It is always very hard to predict the score of a rugby game and I will not attempt to do so this time. No, what this game showed, for the first time, were the intentions and capacities of the current English squad to play the kind of fast, attacking rugby that is the most attractive and successful currently being played in Europe at international level.

Since then, with a few blimps, they have continued with this style of play and its combination of cohesive force and speed, and it has gradually been mastered by the players. Even last year's game between France and England, played in Paris under poor weather conditions, was only narrowly won by France and it was England that made most of the play that day. The performances of the English rugby team during their summer tour to Australia, combined with their test matches last autumn and the first two games of the current 6-nations tournament, have shown that they are currently the only European side that has a serious chance of beating any of the top three world teams, all from the Southern Hemisphere: New Zealand, Australia and South Africa.

As a lover of the rugby of movement, with the search for open spaces, a rugby where the ball-carrier tries to avoid or break tackles, remaining on his feet, and where individual and collective inspiration play a key role in creating suprises, I have been miserable in a recent past watching England play that boring, stereotyped game where players crash into the defense, lie down on the ball and lay it like an egg to the back-up players, rather like in Rugby League. The game I like to watch was played, occasionally, by France, often by Australia and almost always by New Zealand. Now England have managed to reinvent their rugby, and all true rugby fans should be glad, even if they wish for a French victory tomorrow.

I will watch the game here in France in a wine bar, surrounded by French people, friends and strangers, and applaud the team that plays the most beautiful game, even if I remain at heart an English supporter. It could be a very interesting game, with scrums fairly equal. Perhaps a slight advantage to France in this department. England probably have the edge in the line-out though, and they must have it in the back line, simply because their backs have been playing together for longer, and with more success, than the French who seem to change their team for almost every game. So England are the favourites for this game, but the French rugby team are never as dangerous as when they are the under-dogs, so it is not so easy to predict what will happen. Whoever wins this game has every chance of winning the tournament too, so it is like a final before the end, adding extra spice to the issue.

All I really wish for is a good game (and that expression will probably annoy some people further!)