France 12 England 10: Martin Johnson sees the light - but why did it take him so long?


He had just enjoyed the freedom of the Stade de France in a team which had finally, belatedly cast off its caution, but Mark Cueto was not alone in struggling to place so many wildly conflicting emotions in some sort of order.

Here was honour and hope in defeat, and a degree of pride in a performance far removed from the drudgery that had preceded it in this RBS Six Nations campaign.

Yet, the wing, his team-mates and the England management were left to grapple with the equally intense sense of frustration and regret. A loss is a loss however it comes and clear improvements had only been made once the stakes had been lowered.

Mark Cueto

Rampaging: Mark Cueto

Martin Johnson’s team finished third in the championship after failing to prevent a Gallic Grand Slam that was completed with the minimum of style and a dose of panic.

Yet, what England delivered amid intermittent downpours in Paris on Saturday night was a shred of evidence at long last that their attacking potential — previously well hidden — does not just amount to a torrent of brave words about slick training-ground routines.

It may have been too little for victory and too late to save their season, but finally England looked dynamic and dangerous, they looked focused and coached. There was shape and the semblance of a plan.

Mike Tindall

Battering ram: Mike Tindall powers through France¿s midfield after Foden touches down (right)

And there was a try by Ben Foden that was executed with breathtaking assurance. But — there is always a but — what a shame that just when they found some fireworks they couldn’t light them often enough.

The set-piece meltdown which scarred the first half and left Johnson’s men playing catch-up after the break meant the backs were not given enough ball to capitalise on their sudden surge of belief.

Yet, when possession did come, there was Toby Flood conducting superbly, Mike Tindall rolling back the years in midfield, Cueto running with purpose and Foden wreaking havoc from full back.

England played like a French team and vice versa, but the Anglo-Saxon impersonators won, despite their half backs going to pieces under pressure. A final 10 minutes of ‘anti-rugby’ took Marc Lievremont’s team to their precious Slam but the jeers of their fans only faded when the final whistle signalled that the miserable tactics had paid off.

Ben Foden

Conviction: Ben Foden scores for England

And so despite Foden’s try and Jonny Wilkinson’s staggering late penalty to set up what could have been a grandstand finish, England were left in reflective mood.

Cueto, whose scorching second-half break so nearly led to a try for Danny Care, did his best to make sense of it all, knowing that the big win was missing, but that the more positive display would revive some belief among a disheartened rugby public.

‘The performance was much better,’ he said.

‘On the whole we played with a lot more ambition and a positive mindset. But that does make it more frustrating because we have talked and talked about the potential and we’ve just been waiting for something to click.

‘There were a couple of times today, particularly early on, when there were little touches we’ve not quite had the confidence to go through with before. But today we really took it to them and had a go, so it is frustrating because that is the potential we’ve known we’ve got in the team.

Martin Johnson

In the right direction: Martin Johnson

‘The rain actually hurt us today didn’t it? For the first 10 or 15 minutes we were flying, we were ripping them apart, but after Foden scored in the corner there was a monsoon for five minutes which really slowed the game down and played into their hands.

‘I don’t know why it hasn’t clicked before. It is disappointing. We had the best squad that has been available for a long time but we haven’t delivered on the potential we’ve got on paper.’

Asked if he understood why England supporters would arguably take more from defeat here than they took from the turgid win over Italy or draw in Scotland, Cueto added: ‘Hopefully they will think that, but unfortunately we are judged by results and we lost today, that’s the bottom line.

'I would rather win 3-0, but looking ahead to the summer tour, hopefully we can remember what we’ve done here today and be confident enough to continue with that belief.’

Match facts and How They Finished

Johnson and his coaches responded in admirably decisive fashion to the first-half scrummaging problems by withdrawing Dan Cole and Dylan Hartley at half-time and sending David Wilson and Steve Thompson on to steady the ship.

They did just that, denying France the stream of penalties which had allowed them to creep ahead. The withdrawal of Tindall in the 53rd minute was a more debatable call as the Gloucester centre had shackled Mathieu Bastareaud and exposed his defensive weakness.

Ever loyal to his coaches, Johnson was quick to highlight Brian Smith’s success in identifying this chink in the French ranks.

‘The coaches take a lot of criticism but it was a great call to target Bastareaud on the outside,’ said the manager.

‘It was great work by the players to execute it but credit to Smithy who said, “Bastareaud will come out so trust your hands”.’

Ultimately, it was a clever ploy and an isolated success at the end of a championship season where England have made far too many dubious tactical choices and shown an inability to adapt on the hoof.

But at least, with Flood pulling the strings, this was a start, a platform, a small step in the right direction.

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