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Revamped England ready to blitz France

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Tom Fordyce | 09:31 UK time, Thursday, 6 October 2011

Auckland, North Island

An old yarn about Ian Botham has been much in mind as one soaks up the atmosphere in town during the final few days before England's World Cup quarter-final battle with France.

In the tale, Botham is in his dotage, saggy of rump and multiple of chin. He is bowling to Australia during the Ashes of 1989, trundling in, all with crimson-faced effort but delivering nothing more than a succession of docile dibbly-dobblers miles wide of off stump.

At tea, the Aussie batsmen return to the dressing-room, shaking their heads in disbelief.

"What's Botham doing?" asks one of their team-mates.

"It's even worse than we thought," replies the batsman. "He's bowling these unbelievable mystery balls. They look just like slow wide ones, but we all know they can't be. It's terrifying..."

Something similar seems to be happening with the England rugby team here in New Zealand.

A succession of uninspired, ugly performances so far in this World Cup should have the locals sniggering their socks off, dismissing both England's ponderous style and their chances of winning back the William Webb-Ellis trophy they claimed over the Tasman eight years ago.

Instead, the exact opposite is happening.

Jonny Wilkinson (right) and Toby Flood (centre) have both been selected to start against France. Photo: Getty

"Classic England," one wise judge told me. "They're so, so good at knockout rugby. They're doing it to perfection again."

"It's just the same as 2003 and 2007," said another, "so impressive. I guarantee they will make the final."

In this strange and paranoid parallel universe, England's very failure to get out of second gear is seen as clear evidence that they are in fact roaring along in fifth. By winning in such narrow, nerve-wracking fashion against Argentina and Scotland, they seem to have proved their cup-winning credentials far better than if they had breezed through with a truckload of tries.

It's a curious way of looking at things. Only in sport could logic be so readily suspended. No-one squeaks a D-grade pass in their mock GCSEs and takes it to mean that an A-star is therefore guaranteed when it really matters.

It is also exactly the same for England's opponents.

All week, Martin Johnson's players have lined up to tell us that France's woeful form in the pool stages perversely means they will play out of their skin on Saturday. Divisions in the camp? Coach at war with his players? Perfect preparation for Les Bleus.

"They'll be like a wounded animal," said Ben Foden.

"It might look like disarray," added Toby Flood, "but I've been in teams like that, and it can be a very powerful tool."

Mystery balls or not, do not expect England to change their methods now. Johnson's team selection on Thursday spoke of two things: boot and brawn.

After a week of debate about Wilkinson versus Flood, he has gone for both. If Mike Tindall's dead leg made the decision easier for him, creating a berth at centre for the Leicester man, it opens up kicking options lacking in previous partnerships and also mirrors Clive Woodward's decision to pick Mike Catt in place of Tindall for the World Cup semi-final against France in 2003.

Which one of the two will take place-kicking duties? "You'll have to wait till Saturday," Johnson replied, relishing the chance to tease.

Despite prop Matt Stevens' poor game against Scotland, and France coach Marc Lievremont's selection of the mighty Nicolas Mas opposite him, Johnson has resisted the chance to let Alex Corbisiero build on his impressive displays as a replacement with a start.

Tom Palmer's recall in the second row makes logical sense, not just for his own impact off the bench last week but for his role in England's championship-winning performances in this spring's Six Nations.

Whether Courtney Lawes should have been the man to give way, rather than Louis Deacon, is somewhat less certain.

Perhaps the biggest surprise is the demotion of James Haskell - ever-present in the tournament so far, recently up to his neck in all things French, playing club rugby at Stade Francais - in favour of the doughty, durable Nick Easter.

Martin Johnson was the centre of attention as he faced a scrum from the gathered media. Photo: Getty

"It was a particularly hard call and I said that in front of the team," admitted Johnson. "He didn't deserve it the way he has played. But he will still have a massive impact on the match - everyone wants to start but your role is no less coming off the bench."

Easter will offer experience, nous and a sense of calm. He might also help bring back a sense of enjoyment to a squad that has sometimes appeared to have all the fun tabloided out of them.

Sporting a new Zapata-style moustache, these were Easter's responses to supposedly serious questions in Thursday's media scrum at the team hotel:

How's the injured back?

"They told me my back was in great condition for a rugby player. Not for a normal citizen though."

Did your bungee-jump in Queenstown make it worse?

"It was close to the best five seconds of my life. I won't mention what beats it."

What will the battle at the breakdown feel like?

"Enormous amounts of pain."

As well as a laconic interviewee, Easter is a rugby pragmatist.

"It's not going to come down to moments of magic or something spectacular," he said.

"There will be bone-crunching tackles, and it's going to be physical at the scrum and breakdown. We've gone for a five-two split with the forwards (on the replacements' bench) because we know that big games are won there, and no more so against the French.

"There's added spice with all the history, let alone all the rugby history. We know a lot about each other, and you don't want to be the one who lets the other guy get one over on you."

What England have promised is a blitz from the blocks on Saturday night, an opening as dynamic and aggressive as the first quarter against Scotland was feeble.

"What we must do against France is say: 'For 20 minutes, this is massive', " Flood stated.

"Our starts have been poor. We as a squad need to deal with that and say, 'Our starts have been rubbish but if we get it right here then, hopefully, we'll remove any resistance we're going to have'.

"You can't go around saying, 'At 60 minutes our fitness is going to tell'. We might not be in the game after 60 minutes. We have to understand that we blitz them from minute one."

In England's last three big matches against the French on foreign soil, that's exactly what they managed to do.

Josh Lewsey's try after just two minutes set the tone for the World Cup semi-final triumph of 2007; Paul Sackey's try on five minutes did the same in the Six Nations win the following year, and Foden's slide into the corner in March 2010 set up England's best display of the tournament.

There are other encouraging omens, if you know where to look.

England have reached this stage of the competition having conceded just a solitary try, a more parsimonious record than any of the other quarter-finalists.

As Easter pointed out, they are unbeaten, and no team has ever gone on to win a World Cup having lost a pool game. And - if you don't mind stretching things a little - they haven't lost a World Cup knockout game to a northern hemisphere side in 24 years.

Then there is 2007. At the same point four years ago England looked doomed - battered 36-0 by South Africa, drawn against a rampaging Wallabies in a quarter-final no-one could see them winning.

And we all know what happened next.


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  • Comment number 1.

    Good blog!
    I really don't think Stevens and Deacon should be starting their counterparts (lawes and corbs) have done more when they've been playing.
    Also i don't like 5 - 2 splits as with a couple of injuries you've got croft on the wing.....actually that sounds like a good idea, but you get the point.
    I'm looking forward to saturday, i really don't know why i'm confident but for some reason i seem to think england will get to the final, i'm sure it's just baseless hope but...

  • Comment number 2.

    Nice article.

    Like the Freudian slip of the finger there Tom. Matt Stevens is a tight head prop. It's a pity he's not being played there!

  • Comment number 3.

    Finally a blog where someone talks sense and puts at least a hint of positivity in. Marvellous as always Tom. Good flair from Happy Easter in his interview too.

  • Comment number 4.

    Great blog Tom,
    I personally would have gone for lawes, but apart from that I am happy with the selection and think Haskell can make a great impact from the bench! I too am worryingly not too nervous about this match, should I be...?
    SWING LOW!!!!!!!!

  • Comment number 5.

    It is a give in that ENG will have 50% or more of possession. Also a give in that Wilko and Flood will kick for the match to be played in the French half. The French will commit errors, JW/TF will kick penalties/droppies, Les Bleus will be under enormous pressure. In previous RWC's the French have bounced top teams, notably the AB's, but this current squad, in spite of their individual talent are not in a cohesive mental state to get past England.

  • Comment number 6.

    if we don't win this game then maybe it's time for a change in management. I'm not saying it has to be wholesale - but where we've constantly lost out the last few years is at the breakdown - so replacing John Wells with a more modern coach would go some way to improving that facet of our game.
    But horses for courses - i can see why he's picked this team (not why he's gone for Deacon above Lawes though - Lawes always destroys the french at club and country level - i bet Morgan Parra inparticular is glad he's only on the bench!).
    Clearly should have taken Flutey over Hape in the first place - Flood at 12 isn't ideal and means no fresh legs to come on at 10 later in the game and only Banahan to come on as cover.
    I just hope youngs can hear Flood from 12 - as he only ever seems to play well when Flood is playing. If he starts that childish brat stuff like he did against Scotland last week and Ireland in the 6 Nations - then get him off straight away. Shame Simpson isn't on the bench to provide 9 or wing cover.
    Allez les rost bifs!

  • Comment number 7.

    If ever there was a selection that said "opps - we really should have brought Flutey with us" this is it. I'm also for the first time doubting MJ as some of these selections i just don't understand.
    I will be delighted to be wrong at about 10:30 on Saturday but even if the French are worse than us Wales / Ireland fill me with dread and it really shouldn't be that way.

  • Comment number 8.

    Johnson has picked a good solid team. I am very excited about the wilkinson and flood partnership hopefully it will help open the channels for manu.
    I feel sorry for haskell. He did not deserve to be placed on the bench, BUT i do believe he will make a massive impact when he come on.
    England will win, they just have to up their tempo, throw themselves into the tackles, put everything on the line. We are gonna have a tough game against Ireland in the semis (yeah i said it - start the whinging).
    I am confident even through bad games, because we as englishman have something nobody else does, the ability to win and keep coming through dyer odds. Knockout rugby is not about flair and the ability to score loads of trys. Its about the win, I think NZ are gonna find that out the hard way

  • Comment number 9.

    The World Cup is all about the knockout stages and England are past masters at winning in this format. I do fear the French, but we should beat them and then anything is possible. I do have a funny feeling that it will be an England - South Africa Final again, experience counts in these latter stages and England and South Africa have it in abundance.

  • Comment number 10.

    Good post Tom, trying your best to drum up some positivity. And to be fair I didn't realise we'd only conceded one try, but I'm afraid I give us little hope. We might scrape past a poor France outfit but then we'll be humiliated thereafter.

  • Comment number 11.

    "Revamped England ready to blitz France"

  • Comment number 12.

    finally a journalist with a sensible perspective and positive view. Great article Tom !! I think the tight games england have had in the pool will perhaps be a good thing for the knock out stages, they also know how to win knock out games as history proves. Wilkinson / flood is an exciting prospect, a little concerned about only 2 backs on the bench. If they start hard and fast against france then they should win. Wales / Ireland will be an excellent game and too close to call. Hopefully english journalists will start being positive about the england team rather than wasting time on petty negatives. Great Blog Tom

  • Comment number 13.

    @Hugh Davis

    Not Freudian slip by Tom but a subbing slip by me, which I've fixed. Thanks for the nudge.

  • Comment number 14.

    I really like the selection. I think Flood playing at 12 is a great indication of attacking intent. His first England game was against France (away) under Brian Ashton capped off with a try and a good old fashion spanking of the french.

    Flood will also be a decent foil for Tuiligi and Ashton to run inside lines off as he takes the ball much flatter and is an illusive runner - I can see Wilko defending at 12 but I can't see him giving up his kicking duties!

    Tom Palmer deserves to be playing and I think he offers more going forward - esepecially off slow phase ball than Lawes.

  • Comment number 15.

    With both Johnny and Toby playing I hope it doesn't turn into a game of kicking away possession the whole time. Hopefully the times that JW does pass Toby the ball that his instinct to kick it away doesn't "kick in" and he passes it to the beast beside him. If England get that ball out to Tua and Ash then I can see them scoring 2-3 trys and having an easy time of it. France have let in the most amount of trys of any team in the QF and 9 times as many trys as England have conceded. So they are there for the ripping apart! And I think England will do just that.

  • Comment number 16.

    @ #9. I have a strong suspicion these are wise words sir. Just have a feeling. Even as a proud England supporter, I'm unsure whether England deserve it. But winning is as much a skill as running fancypants moves. Ideally, you do both. But if I have to pick between being praised (patronised?) like Samoa and going home, or being mocked and dismissed but carrying on as England have, I will take the latter every day of the week.

  • Comment number 17.

    I've never liked the idea of droppig a player who has done well, unless you're sure the player you're bringing in will do better. So it's a big call with Easter, but at least the coach is having the courage in his convictions.

    What chance Corbs to come on for Stevens after 50 minutes only for Cole the develop and injury in the 60-65th minute that sees Stevens back on as the THP?

    It's an okay team, and really we don't have many players that are much better than okay. And it might be enough to beat the French who are still asking an awful lot of Parra. I quite like the French team, especially the return of Mas, and I'm a big fan of their centre paring. Not sure I'd have gone for Clerc and Palisson, probably Clerc and Medard on the wings with Heymans starting at 15 and Palisson coming off the bench, but it's fine. Worried Dusautoir and Nallet will turn in big performances.

  • Comment number 18.

    England is ready, France will be too.
    I think France will win this match.
    They are in their favorite position as outsider. They are at the bottom & have all to display. Many experienced players are conscious they will play their last WC.
    That will be an all-out game. Many players dealt with it in the last WC against AB & they succeeded. England tend to see France with disdain which is a sheer error.
    I won't be so confident on the semi match.

  • Comment number 19.

    Liked the Botham story v Eng - made me chuckle!

    I would have lost Lawes rather than Deacon for Palmer to replace - and surely Haskell deserves his place over Easter. He's been dynamic, done a lot of ball carrying, is far quicker than Easter and is good in defence - barmey if you ask me.

    I don't like Eng talking about getting off to a good start for the first 20 m ins or so - keeps me thinking they will revert back to thinking the games won if it that strategy pays off and we know what that will look like - a ticket home!

    Pleased to see Wilkinson/Flood combination but I want to see JW at 10 and really bossing the game and the players around and in front of him.

    Overall - pleased with team, nervous for Saturday all the same - I want a win first - if a dynamic performance follows all the better.

  • Comment number 20.

    Sometimes Martin Johnson just makes me shake my head.

    Lawes and Haskell have arguably been our best 2 forwards and they are certainly outside of Croft, the two most dynamic players in the pack and he replaces them Deacon and the Pilsbury Dough Boy.

    Also, how many terrible games does Stevens need to have before he changes to Corbisiero who has been faultless in the scrum?

    Agree with the general sentiment of the blog though, there has been a grim inevitability with every England game so far. No matter how bad we have been, I have never really though we were going to lose and as long as we are within 10 points with 15 mins left, I would still back us against any team not named New Zealand or South Africa.

  • Comment number 21.

    Please advise - Am I the only one thinking that Youngs should have been dropped for this match. Feels almost wrong to even question his presence due to his undoubted talent. I just feel he has had a poor WC so far. Yes the ball hasn't been the cleanest but he has been very indecisive and dare I say it immature at times. Maybe he needs a little wake up call.

  • Comment number 22.

    Thanks Tom, thats got my juices running for the weekend :)

    We're a cup half empty nation when it comes to sport, never happy.. even when we're winning, but fascinating to hear other nations are worried about England. Which to be fair to MJ and England, although they haven't set the world on fire (yet) neither have they looked like being beaten (though Scotland was damn close)... they've put in a formidable defensive perfromance so far, that will have any team (except NZ) concerned.

    It's a brave call to play Wilko and Flood together .. though Hape's got to be wondering what he's got to do to get a game with Tindall being crocked.

    Palmer in and the inclusion of Shaw is a plus too .. it would be great to see him in Lions rampaging form in a white shirt.

    Weaknesses ? Plenty... Decision making under pressure, Youngs' ponderous distribution and Stevens at scrum time spring to mind, but there's enough there to worry and hopefully beat the French.

    Allez les Rosbifs

  • Comment number 23.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 24.

    @ 21. JRDMRugbyMania

    Your probably not the only one, but I disagree.

    When you have a very good, almost great player in poor form, you stick by him. Especially when his replacements are no sure bet. I'm not sure about Jonnos forward selections, but I can't find fault in the backs.

  • Comment number 25.

    England's problem is that they won the world cup 8 years ago. Englands footballers won it 45 years ago but the current team still has to carry a burden of expectation based purely on that single result.

    The fact is, England are and always have been a forward oriented team with a back division who, given the right platform, can score lots of tries. Their problem is (and always has been) that if a team sets out to disrupt that platform they look very ordinary at the back. The problem for opposition is that the effort required to disrupt that platform usually results in fitness issues later in the game and, unless you can score a pile of points when you are disrupting their game (Ireland 6N 2011) you will start to leak them late on when England start hitting their straps (Argentina RWC 2011, Scotland RWC 2011).

    Ignoring the class of 2003 who were head and very big shoulders above everybody. You need to look at the history of encounters between England Argentina, England Scotland and indeed England Italy to realise that these fixtures have frequently been scrappy affairs with narrow margins of victory (in both directions).

    Now the knockouts begin its no longer about "damage limitation" or "see if we can squeak a result" the opposition will have stepped up a gear, they will not want to simply disrupt England but impose their own game on the match. This will in turn remove some of the shackles that England have had placed upon them thus far.

    What is really interesting is that, with perhaps the exception of Argentina and the French who seem to be self-destructing, I would not feel safe putting money on the winner of this competition because, now New Zealand have lost Carter and are risking an injured McCaw, no-one stands out as better enough than anyone else to put their hand up as favourite.

  • Comment number 26.

    Well it was often said in the late 1980s that Botham could take wickets bowling with an orange - and that was almost true. He got a lot of batsmen out simply by being Botham rather than bowling well, and England have developed a similar hold over France in the Rugby World Cup. You sense they would rather play anyone than us. Although there seems to be too much over-confidence among England supporters this time and it could rebound on us.

    Easter should have been put out to pasture some time ago but I suspect Haskell's demotion is more about what went on off the field than on it - and if that's the case then I think I agree with it. Same with Tindall, who has let himself down in almost every conceivable way recently and doesn't belong in an England jersey any more. I'm glad Flood and Wilkinson have been selected alongside each other - it's just a pity they're the wrong way round.

    Whatever happens over the next few weeks, it is time for a new management team for England. Johnson has tried gamely but he is not the right man for the job and I can't see us ever realising our potential while he's in charge. Thanks MJ but you were over-promoted and we need some new guys in there.

  • Comment number 27.

    Does the 1995 third place playoff not count as a knockout game?

  • Comment number 28.

    I can see the logic in having Lawes and Haskell on the bench. Two players who can make a serious 'impact' in the last 25 mins of a match.

    Good to see both JW and TF start, as has been mentioned,I hope they can provide more guile for the likes of MT and the rest of the back 3 to take advantage of.

  • Comment number 29.

    Hape is the odd thing in all this. For the managemnt to have stuck with him so long, and rightly to have seen the many things he does well, to not be involved is poor. Or put another way they're either making a mistake not picking him now, or they've made a mistake many months back and then compounded that by continuing to select him and not afford anyone else a chance.

  • Comment number 30.

    @15; I dont believe it James Mathews not slating the english! haha!

    Flood is probably the best option at 12 we have. He can distubute better than Tindall and Hape, lets hope JW and him can stay fit. I dont want to see Banahan at 12. Or Wigglesworth at 10 (he is 3rd choice should things go tits up!).

    Deffinately an "ooops we should have brought a 12" moment.

    Interesting to see that people are seeing us as a real threat dispite our form. Guess other look at us the way we look at the French. In a WC you just can't write us off....

  • Comment number 31.

    Agree with #21 JRDRugbyMania a little bit. Youngs looks a little lost when he doesn't have a 10 shouting at him. He's not going to get that from Wilkinson. Wigglesworth also had a very strong game against the french away in the 6N a couple of years ago so it is an interesting call - for me a closer call than Easter in for Haskell (as Easter offers so much more of the dark arts stuff). Lawes as well as very good at tackling but you are not losing anything in the tackling states bringing in TP and arguably - this game needs a much stronger/heavier ball carrier than Lawes as it won't get flung around much in the first 30...

  • Comment number 32.

    I don't honestly know who's stronger between Lawes and Palmer, but I'd be surprised if Palmer is heavier. Not that there can be much in it.

  • Comment number 33.

    Literally can't wait!! Come on England!!

  • Comment number 34.

    I agree Haskell has been unfortunate as he has given England a lot of go forward ball in the last few games, but I think Easter has got the nod because he is widely regarded as a very inteligent rugby player and MJ thinks brain over brawn at 8 will help (and I agree). I wouldn't have gone with Stevens as I haven't been impressed with him at scrum time but hopefully they've been working on it this week and he will have a stormer.

    I think Floods inclusion at 12 is needed to give us a bit more creativity in attack, but I can't help but think that its an admittance by MJ that he should have taken a more naturally creative centre (Fluety) than the 3 (no Banahan is not a centre) he decided on, or perhaps he always had this in mind?

    As for the 5-2 split on the bench, I never agree with it - I know that MJ is expecting a physical game up front (and he will be right about that) but I think that it could leave us dangerously short of cover in the midfield if we get any knocks. I wouldn't want banahan playing 12 against the French. Although I agree blitz them for 20 minutes and try and get them to turn on each other, the French have not looked like a cohesive unit and worst of all they have no respect for their coach (or he for them by the looks of it) so if we can put them in disarray early on I think they will struggle like they did against Tonga.

  • Comment number 35.

    Easter has been picked because Haskell hasn't yet learned how to pick the ball up from the back of the scrum, which against Yachvilli, Dusautoir & co is suicide.

    The rest is ok, too, although I'm not expecting too much from the 10-12 combo.

    Worried about only Wigglesworth and the Hulk on the bench.

  • Comment number 36.

    Great Blog!

    Interesting read and well thought out conclusion - Excellent!

  • Comment number 37.

    @ 21 I agree with @24 re Youngs. Yes he's not played brilliantly so far, Scotland his worst performance in an England shirt, but if you drop players based on form, you would have to drop most of the team. NZ wouldn't drop Carter after a few average games, so we need to stick with Youngs because he can be world class. I think Simpson should be on the bench though instead of Wigglesworth, his pace could be important off the bench and as others have pointed out can also cover the wing.

    I just think that Johnson doesn't really know what he's doing - a great player doesn't necessarily make a great leader/manager. Playing Stevens out of his best position when Corbisero has looked really good and then leaving Hape out the squad and putting Flood in at 12 is weird. It would be like NZ putting Slade in at 12 because they left Nonu at home (not saying Hape is same class as Nonu before you scream, just the logic of not playing specialists in their best positions). Same comment with playing Armitage on the wing against Scotland when Cueto was fit.

    As much as I agree that we need to be positive and I will of course support England, I'm still left feeling empty at the turgid rugby we have played. What's more insulting is the patronising politician-esque interviews with Johnson and players. Everything they say comes across so false, trotted out as the party line. There is a lack of honesty in how the squad presents itself and they are acting like schoolboys on tour with a 6th form leader. The discipline off the field is as poor as the discipline on the field, even the coaches are at it.

    I've no doubt we can get to the final but to do so twice in a row playing the soulless rugby we do is not, in my eyes, positive for the game. We suck the life out of rugby. I'm probably one of the few England supporters who would rather we played intelligent, exciting, free flowing rugby and lose than carry on grinding out uninspiring narrow victories based on braun rather than skill. I'm a fan of rugby first and foremost and the more I watch England, the less enjoyment I get from the game.

    I just hope this team surprises me with the next performance.

  • Comment number 38.

    @10 "We might scrape past a poor France outfit but then we'll be humiliated thereafter"

    I can only summize that when people say stuff like this they are either inherrently pessimistic, football fans or very young. When was the last time we got humiliated, in the last 8 years i can only think of the 36-0 V SA. Yes we've been beaten well by Ireland in 6 nations and NZ away but in nearly all other losses we have been within 7 points.

    Personally I think we'll beat the French and we will beat the Welsh as the Irish will bottle the quarter final and we'll just find enough to get us through to the final.

    All in all, I can't wait for Saturday morning!!

  • Comment number 39.

    It's a curious way of looking at things. Only in sport could logic be so readily suspended. No-one squeaks a D-grade pass in their mock GCSEs and takes it to mean that an A-star is therefore guaranteed when it really matters.

    Sorry but that is a silly analogy. This is a world cup, get a D-grade pass in every match and you win the whole thing, you never need to perform to A-star level in any single match. If you are going to try and inject some literary prose into your piece then think about it first.

    I do agree with the idea that England aren't good enough but I also see them getting to the final by hook or crook before losing a dismal match to South Africa (who are The England of the other side of the draw for me).

  • Comment number 40.

    @38 - Wirral18 you forgot that a large proportion of our population are Clarevoyants and have already seen the future!

    It's quite simple - knockout rugby is always a tight affair and there will be no 'humiliations' in the QF, SF or F! For me anyside is capable of winning a knockout game, England and Argentina showed in 2007 the importance of having a strong pack and belief in yourselves, then you cango a long way in these tournaments.

  • Comment number 41.

    Think I'll stay in bed, you see more skill in a game of monkey tennis than this union lark.
    All this southern bias, media hype of a southern sport played by doctors and farmers is not for me......zzzzzzzzzz.

  • Comment number 42.

    Fuzzy - put the tired old cliches away. Union hasn't been an amateur sport for quite a while now (never, if hardcore Leaguies are to be believed), and just because League is confined to the north of England (or rather a relatively small part of the north of England), it doesn't mean that Union is confined to the south of England - it very much isn't.

    But of course you knew all that anyway... (and I say this as a fan of League who is grateful for the positive effects it has had on Union).

  • Comment number 43.

    "Does the 1995 third place playoff not count as a knockout game?"

    If you are going to count that as a game between two teams still in the competition, then logically you would have to say that the semi-finals *weren't* knockout games, as they didn't knock anyone out – they only determined who played whom in the two remaining fixtures. Also, if the third-place playoff is a knockout, then logically only the losers of the fixture are knocked out, and the winners are still in the competition – news which might come as a bit of a surprise to the two finalists.

  • Comment number 44.

    Good Blog.

    I like the selection.

    Other than the Wlko Flood debate I was surprised to see that Lawes got dropped and Haskells absence. Both having a good solid WC but then what great Impact players to come off the bench. Gutted for Hape but then I am excited about the JW/TF combo should be interesting. Tin's has had a poor tournament and to be fair wasn't much better in the warm up, felt Manu made him look better than he is. My only concern about all of it is Banahan, shouldn't be at World Cup let alone the bench but hey ho.

    But all in all we are winning, we are defending very well and still strongly in it and we are good enough to win it (along with 2 others). We got to the final (and nearly won) in 2007 playing ugly and as the Kiwi's have shown us in past RWC you can have all the flair in the world but it doesnt mean you will win it!

  • Comment number 45.

    Another nicely crafted blog Tom, thanks. England have gone for the bold selection that I hoped for (and mentioned on the previous blog) JW and TF in unison. As Jonno says its not a gamble as defensively these guys have it under control, and offensively and in terms of running, kicking and distribution it offers much more. Well done to Jonno for this selection, I can imagine the French will not be happy at the prospect of facing these two players who know each other so well and playing together. But no-one should lose sight of the fact that this game will be won or lost up front. The French have a fantastic pack, great front row especially, and it will be a hard gruelling battle. This is a great opportunity for both sides, lets see who can grab it. I hope that the referee will not swing the match in either direction with biased decisions....Lastly I have never seen JW more fed up looking, he looks like he has really had enough of the anti english media onslaught (I read he wrote to the press in NZ..). It appears to be the case that the England team is the one many love to hate. Well he (JW) will have his say on the pitch I am sure and give his answer to the critics as he normally does by scoring for his team. And for England they need to unite in ferocity and determination to answer the critics and send the French packing their bags and taking the flight home.

  • Comment number 46.

    I don't think England will win against France on Saturday. If they do scrape by with penalties and drop goals, they don't stand a chance against Wales in the Semi Final. Wales are the outstanding team of the tournament and did beat SA. They will crucify France in the SF or run rampant against a dull England.

  • Comment number 47.

    Dont know about anyone else but my stomach is all a twitch wont need to set the alarm for this game not sure if I will be able to sleep never mind get up on time. My main worry is that France might be playing with 16 men. Yes we are looking at you Mr Walsh.

  • Comment number 48.

    I think this 10,12 combo will prove very effective and will leave MJ wondering if there is even a place for Tindall when he returns. Defensively Flood aint the best but I think he will raise to the event and will produce his best performance yet.
    England by 15+

  • Comment number 49.



    .....and between the posts or you're home early. A conversion could decide who goes forward, and in my opinion, a different standard of rugby must now be adopted.
    Failure to raise your game signals the end. Can England aspire to it, or do they have it within themselves to conquer all before them and claim the Cup ??

  • Comment number 50.

    God! How many hours to go? I am starting to get a sweat on already. lol

    I like the 5-2 split on the bench. I am not Banahans biggest fan, but he can play at centre-wing and obviously we have 2 10's on the pitch already. Cueto a modern wing who can easily move to full-back. With Foden at the back also able to offer a 3rd #9 option at a push then we would seem to have everything covered.

    2 injuries in midfield would cause a problem, but then again when wouldn't it.

    The forwards decide who wins. The backs just decide by how much.

    This is going to me a titanic tussle up front. We need to stick it to them from the off, (a slow start will be a disaster).

    Can't wait to see Ash the splash finishing off from a straight Manu break twice in the opening 10 minutes!

  • Comment number 51.

    Haskell talks a lot (ask the hotel staff) but alot doesn't make sense. He isnt the leader he wants to be. Palmer is an obvious call. I would have put Alex in the front row.

    I think we have to remember that Argentina are very good. Easily good enough for the 6 nations so a win there is a win.

  • Comment number 52.

    Where does all the optimism come from?

    Toby Flood is not an inside centre whatever people say.

    Matt Stevens has been in poor form - should be on the bench.

    Moody is no longer good enough as captain or player.

    Youngs and Wilkinson against Scotland was one of the worst halfback combos I have ever seen.

    The backrow looks ponderous and uninspirational.

    The pack looks very slow.

    At least MJ hasn't messed up the back three.

    I can actually see the French winning this one.

  • Comment number 53.

    Also; I wish you hadn't used the word parsimonious.

  • Comment number 54.

    The nerves are jangling already, they always do before a big England match. I'm fairly happy with the selection except for Deacon and Stevens who should have been left out in favour of Corbisiero and Lawes respectively. I also am not a fan of the 5-2 split on the bench. Having said that, both teams owe themselves and their fans a big performance, either way it's going to unbearably tense and thrilling in it's own way. Come on England!

  • Comment number 55.

    correction: Lawes and Corbisiero respectively. Dont want Courtney in the front row now do we ha ha

  • Comment number 56.

    I've always given MJ the benefit of the doubt on selections, but I begin to wonder with this lot. Easter and Flood made a big impression last week-end, but not before the Scots were all but out on their feet. But so did Corbisero and he's not made it, where arguably a change was most needed.
    It looks like Brawn and the Boot are the order of the day. Athletes, (Lawes and Haskell), out, Bulk (Easter and Palmer) in. Keep it tight. If Johnny doesn't kick it Toby will. How frustrating this could be for the Tuillgi, Ashton, Cueto and Foden. I do hope the tales about French disharmony are right. If they galvanise and stretch us around, and they are capable, it won't be long before it's more than on field replacements that are needed.

  • Comment number 57.

    "When was the last time we got humiliated, in the last 8 years i can only think of the 36-0 V SA. Yes we've been beaten well by Ireland in 6 nations and NZ away but in nearly all other losses we have been within 7 points".

    Sorry not meaning to just "have a go" but didnt england have a record loss against SA and AUS a couple of years ago? When MJ took over? Yeah i think so ....

  • Comment number 58.

    Very positive all of a sudden! I fear a trap! This is surely the commentators curse in 12 point Arial Font?

    I'm broadly pleased with the selection. We simply couldn't carry on with Mike Tindall who seems to have lost the little form that he had going into the competition. Sorry for Haskell but I think that MJ knows a thing or two about human nature in that he will either get an inspired performance from Easter as he tries to prove a point or, failing that, an enraged Haskell coming off the bench to prove what a **** he has been for demoting him in the first place!

    I suspect that, in amongst all the furious defamatory punditry (where has Ben Dirs gone?), Martin Johnson also knows a thing or two about playing the long game! England have got to this stage largely in second gear. I was only ever slightly worried against Argentina, who are a tough bunch. Scotland played well but I never thought at any point that England would lose (no disrespect intended)...after all, NZ used to be praised for their ability to soak up 60 minutes of pressure then win the game! MJ has reached this stage with his forces largely intact and not too blown away by some epic effort in the pool stage. Shrewd leadership in my view, even if that doesn't chime with those who want 80 minutes of "death or glory" (usually "death") every game!

    I think that Flood could do very well at IC. He has the speed and guile and has the kick into the bargain. Traditionally you would prefer to see the bigger "hole puncher" at 12 to offload to the speedster at 13. This seems to be the other way around but, then again, tends to conform with the contemporary idea of the deft linebreak at IC with the big guy outside running the angle on the burst! What do I know?

    I hope that Lewis Moody can regain the form that makes him such an effective player and inspirational leader (versus Steve Borthwicks' shop steward approach). On paper so far he hasn't really justified his place compared to the up and coming Wood.

    France, for all their disarray will be a tough nut to crack and it could easily go either way. England will certainly have to play better to beat them and, in a sense, beat themselves out of their limited "poolstage" gameplan.

    Allez les Blancs!

  • Comment number 59.

    Interesting blog and comments, and hello again j mathew.
    I said this before on another site, but what about bananaman at no8 after the WC?

    I really cannot help but think Lievremont has some stunning game plan up his sleeve though, they cant be in that much difficulty can they?

  • Comment number 60.

    This is going to be really tight. I think England are wrong to think about the first 20 minutes. As Argentina & England showed Scotland, winning after 60 minutes means nothing. Look how many pool games have been tight at half time, but not at the end.

    Intriguingly, France have Heymans and Trinh-duc on the bench, England only Banahan. If it is tight, France can bring on games changers, England can't. Intriguingly, France could take Yachvilli off and play Parra at 9 - who like wrigglesworth passes fast and flat, not the loop pass that Yachvilli and especially Youngs have.

    Could we then have the irony of France playing a patient game, waiting for England to run out of steam, waiting for the final 20, whilst England's game plan is to try and win the match by half time. It always used to be the other way round.

    It is going to make a very interesting game and tactical battle. Perhaps this is why Johnson has kept Haskell and Lawes on the bench after all. Some forward power for the final stages.

    I suspect that Johnson reckons it will come down to the boot. France will score tries but give away penalties, so he needs Wilko and Flood on to ensure no repeat of the Scotland game. Hardly an exciting rugby tactic is it?

    France are in disarray, but do have good rugby in them. No-one gave Ireland a chance until they came up against Australia, but class and experience outs. France might be the worst possible opponents for England , and the England selection has a slight look of fear about it. They talk positively, but the selection doesn't reflect that. i think France will win.

  • Comment number 61.

    He's gone for a bunch of dinosaurs in the pack but if they can do the softening up job for 50 mins then we can release the impact players like Lawes, Hartley and Haskell to finish the job.

  • Comment number 62.

    MJ really doesn't have a clue - a great player but his selections as a manager are bewildering. If in doubt, he picks the Leicester mafia - it is clear that the best second row combination is Lawes and Palmer but MJ keeps picking his old mate Deacon.

    How on earth can he drop Haskell - the only forward to have played consistently well and the only ball-carrier to have got us beyond the gain line - for Easter is beyond me. Where does the myth that Easter is intelligent come from? Everytime Easter plays he gives away soft penalties (three against Scotland in about 15 minutes), he has no pace, doesn't win line-out ball and tries fancy off-loads which never work.

  • Comment number 63.

    Yep...getting excited now!!

    I don't think the Easter call is that surprising. #13 hermmy sums it up well. Haskell's lack of technical No8 skill, particularly at the scrummage, is fine against the poorer teams but would likely be exposed by France.

    In my opinion the 5-2 bench is the biggest call here. Yes we have backs with flexibility, but it's reasonably likely that a (half-planned) back line disruption will occur at some point in the match. I hope that isn't our undoing.

    I will choke on my cornflakes if Toby gets the first up kicking duties.

    And finally, thank you Tom for a good blog (much better now that you have replaced poor Ben who was out of his depth) and credit to your colleague Martin Gough for swiftly apologising for a fairly harmless error. Martin, maybe you could brief the English boys on how to react after being caught intimidating a hotel employee...

  • Comment number 64.

    If anyone needs to have their fires stoked a little more, this is an old article from 2007 that sheds some light on England/France rivalry.

  • Comment number 65.

    I think that the base of the scrum was a nightmare last week, and Haskell has made way, he's a flanker not an 8. I think Youngs is very lucky to be in - he had a very indifferent game last week, MJ must think that it was down to the quality of ball he had to work with. Youngs's hesitance made life very difficult for Wilkinson. He does, however, keep back rows interested and that may have saved him.

  • Comment number 66.

    Sorry not meaning to just "have a go" but didnt england have a record loss against SA and AUS a couple of years ago? When MJ took over? Yeah i think so ....

    No you made that up, only heavy defeat i can think of against Australia was 34 - 3 nearly 6 years ago.

    We did have one heavy defeat to SA in 2008 so i'll give you that but my point still stands.

  • Comment number 67.

    I can understand the choice of Easter. France's back row is old rather than fast which plays to Easter's strengths.

    I believe JW will start at 10 but with instructions that he should aggressively go after Parra when France have the ball.

    I can just about understand Matt Stevens selection but it has to be based on MJ believing that there will be few scrums. Stevens is better in loose than Corbs.

    Palmer is a good choice, France do not have a particularly stunning line out - it is not bad, just not great - so a good area for England to attack. But Lawes should not have been the man to lose. England now have a pack where virtually every forward is more comfortable driving very close to the fringes there is no one (apart from Croft) who would naturally drive one or two channels further out. The only way this will make sense is if Ashton is told to make run after run in the 10/12 channel otherwise England attack will be so predictable (give ball to Manu, crash into French, recycle and repeat until ball is turned over)

  • Comment number 68.

    Yeah but if and when you beat the french then you either face the Irish or the Welsh. Ireland has not lost a pool game either.

  • Comment number 69.

    I hope Ireland win so we can sit back at breakfast (and enjoy our pototo salad starter, followed by a staple Guinness, bacon and cabbage main course) and enjoy what should be another great game of the 4 between England and France. Even Argentina may run ABs closer than expected as they have nothing to lose and it starts to be 'choky' time.

    Whichever of the 4 NH teams makes it to the final should be in good shape to face the tri-nations finalist. No reason why we cannot take the trophy back north of the equator.

  • Comment number 70.

    #wirral18 - 2007 Ireland 43 England 13

  • Comment number 71.

    New Zealand stuffed us at Twickenham in 2008. And while the loss to Ireland in this year's Six Nations wasn't by an outlandish margin, it was what it was - a walloping.

  • Comment number 72.

    Lets hope England have a plan B if the "original" plan does not work. England have great fire power in the backs - so lets see it. Winning ugly is not a long term crowd pleaser, although there are some saddoes that want to see a "win at all costs" approach. Rugby is a beautiful game, so lets see it. The french have flair, and this needs to be brought to the next game.
    Tindall's injury may be for the better too.

  • Comment number 73.

    Easter V Haskell, Lawes V Palmer, Stevens V Corbs are all judegment calls, I may not agree but I can live with it.

    Wilko + Flood is an EXPERIMENT!

    It totally changes the nature and style of play of the back line in both offence and defence.

    It maybe for the beter but WTF are we doing running an experiment in the QF of the RWC!

    For MJ to get to this stage and still not really know the best player and best back-up player in each position is worrying.

    I hope we get to the final but if we do my first thanks will be to Lady luck and then MJ and his management team.

  • Comment number 74.

    Interesting thought about the 'mystery ball' paranoia. The contrary also holds true, about New Zealand. They wont their pool games so well that all the commentators are convinced that they 'haven't been tested' and so are doomed to fail in the knockout stages.

  • Comment number 75.

    Easter coming in is a good call in two ways. First of all he is one of the few English back row forwards who is always looking to offload. Haskell has been dynamic against second tier opposition, but against Argentina and Scotland he wasn't any great shakes. Coming off the bench against Scotland Easter immediately added go forward and offloaded in the tackle twice which is twice more than Haskell has all tournament. Secondly, when it comes to scrum time he is much better at protecting and linking with his scrum half. I think this will bring Youngs into the game more which can only be a good thing. It isn't just Flood that brings out the best in Youngs it is Easter for England and Waldrom for Leicester. Anyone calling for Youngs to be dropped should remember the Argentina game. If you would have asked for him to be dropped after that match you would have been laughed out of the room!

    Having Flood outside Jonny is a good call as well as Tom rightly reminds us of Catty in '03. It took a bit more pressure off Jonny and allowed him to concentrate on his own game without having to orchestrate the entire team as well.

    Deacon vs. Lawes is a tight one as Deacon does alot of the unsung work at the breakdown and lineout and probably deserves his place. I think Lawes coming on at sixty for Deacon adds alot more potency rather than the other way around though so probably the right call. However I don't understand why we need two locks on the bench.

    This match will define our world cup challenge. If we can step up our performance and generate a bit of momentum then I think we will stand a good chance of reaching the final. Another stodgy performance will only galvanise Wales/Ireland for the semi. If we lose then Wells has to go and the RFU will have to think long and hard about Johnno...

  • Comment number 76.

    I pretty much agree with the other commentators who cannot understand how Deacon get's in ahead of Lawes and Shaw. Surely Corbisero also deserved a start. I hope we see Flood starting at 10, and Johnny at 12 - I seem to remember him doing well in that position when Cipriani had is good game @ 10 against Ireland in 2008.

    I also agree with rugbytomc @ 6, it would be better to replace John Wells. I would also like to sww Mike Ford replaced - perhaps Shaun Edwards can be brought back from the dark side :O).

  • Comment number 77.

    Would have liked to see Shaw ahead of Deacon and cringed at the selection of Easter. Moody certainly needs to deliver.

  • Comment number 78.

    Had England not made it out of their group you (the media) would have been all over them - the criticism would have been incredible. England have scraped through and now you fancy your chances. Classic England, you are never as bad as you think after a defeat and never as good as you think after a victory.

    Hopefully it is a better game to watch than Easter's prediction!

  • Comment number 79.

    I'm extremely disappointed with this selection:

    Flood at 12 is proposterous. Playing at 12 is not all about "great distribution" or "providing kicking options", the abililty to tackle and defend, possessing pace and power, having a presence and being able to make breaks and offload are all critical characteristics. Flood has none of these and if I were a French centre, I would be licking my lips with delight at the prospect of ruining his Saturday.

    Hape should be playing and it is ridicuous that under these circumstances, he is not even on the bench.

    Youngs at 9 - Having to take two steps before being able to pass the ball is an enormous flaw and a gigantic problem for a scrum-half and ultimately his team.

    Matt Stevens - average player and a poor performer in this World Cup. To me, he just looks unfit.

    Dropping Lawes - absurd.

    Putting Easter in at 8 I can understand but I would have played Haskell in the back-row.

    I will happily eat my words on Saturday but even if we win, my mind is set on Youngs and especially Flood. Yes, they have some good skills but I just don't rate them at the top end of International Level.

  • Comment number 80.

    very interesting blog, thank you

  • Comment number 81.

    Wilkinson/Flood midfield is not an experiment - Flood has only spent a couple of seasons exclusively as a 10. Has been outstanding at 12 outside Cipriani and the Wilkinson/Flood combination was effectively the Newcastle midfield for several seasons.

    I'd like to say it was an inspired decision but a load of the pundits have been calling for it for weeks.

  • Comment number 82.

    I thought England had a great psychology going in the 2007 RWC, 'If we're in the the game on the hour, then we can win it.' Which got them to the final.

    You need some little mantra like that in competitions like this. And this time around, as Tom says in the blog, it's, 'England are winners at knock out rugby.'

    It's just enough to place that little doubt in the sides that have so far played better in the tournament. Interesting to see how it plays out this time!

  • Comment number 83.

    England and France have both been poor so far, so this might not be pretty. However I have a sneaking suspision that the French will win handsomely. Hopefully Wilko will be taking all the kicks, to give us a laugh. The winner of this tie will most likely be dumped out in the SF anyway, so might be best to swing home now and avoid the embarrassment.

  • Comment number 84.


    Would be highly amusing if England beat France and then Wilkinson scored a drop goal in the dying minutes to win against Ire/Wal to give us English a good chortle?!?!?

  • Comment number 85.

    Thank God!! An article with a bit of positivity!!

    This is very much a 50/50 match - both teams lacking a bit of form and under fire to varying degrees, but both also 'due' a performance. It's time to stop talking about midgets and get behind the lads!!

    Selection-wise, I think it's spot on. Moody is lucky not to see Haskell shift to 7 and take his place based on form so far, but he's the captain so it's understandable and he now owes a monster performance. Flood's selection bodes well tactically: Hape would have been the more 'like for like' replacement for Tindall and would have slotted nicely into a 'give away possession and defend territory' gameplan, therefore it's probably a fair assumption that they have something more ambitious in mind. Can't wait...

  • Comment number 86.

    Just tried picking my Lions team, 1 Englishman, 1 Scot the rest Irish and Welsh. Truth I think England simply don't have the quality of players to go much further, the observers are right they are in 5th gear and that all they have got.

  • Comment number 87.

    It certainly wood smackeyes. Then your alarm clock sounds.....

  • Comment number 88.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 89.

    Haskell isn't able to control the emerging ball at scrum time - he's not a natural no 8. Easter is. Hape's exclusion is very odd

  • Comment number 90.

    The comments in regards to there being no No.10 are wrong. Wigglesworth (love that name) can play 9,10 or 12 and has done so regualr at club level.

    This match will be all about the forwards and all 5 will be required. Can you imagine the poor tired french pack watching Deacon and Easter walking off only to replaced with Haskell and Lawes....soul destroying

  • Comment number 91.

    I dont think Steve Walsh will be the main attraction /problem as he has been one of the better refs in an overall relatively poor display at this World Cup. England will try to grind the life out of France but if France begin like they did v NZ and get over the line this time they might produce an upset. France have the tools for an upset but will they be inspired enough. Smart money says no.

    What a weekend in store for the fans - all the games look enticing and the results are far from predictable. Ireland have been a real surprise but Wales look very likely too.

  • Comment number 92.

    What's all this talk about Mike Ford being replaced? England's defence has been absolutely immense so far - try in 4 games....really doesn't make sense to me

  • Comment number 93.

    Smackeyes - you may want to get an exorcist in that case. She died in a car crash almost 4 years ago.

  • Comment number 94.

    Swooping Bald Eagles, and others. Flood made his England debut at 12 and has plenty of caps in that position, not to mention experience playing outside Johnny from his Newcastle days. You act as if he's never seen a 12 jersey!! Also, yes, he lacks the defensive strenght of Tindall or Hape, but everyone spends the entire pool stages bleating on about boring England, Tindall being one dimensional etc. etc., and now you're shooting Johnson down for a more attack minded approach?! He can't win with you lot!

    Also, Hape is not on the bench because he is not a versatile enough bench option, particularly when only picking 2 backs.

  • Comment number 95.

    As frenchman, I would say it is 50/50. We have certainly been ridiculous so far, yet we still have an opportunity to wake up and show at last some valuable opposition. on one condition: if England starts hard and scores fast in the game, well it's over, Les Bleus' current fragile mental state will likely break, and it could turn to a severe loss, but if England is not merciless from the start and lets us see some hope, then they will put themselves in a challenging situation. Knowing that, I hope France will start hard and score fast...

  • Comment number 96.

    "Wales are the outstanding team of the tournament and did beat SA. "
    Err, no they didn't.

  • Comment number 97.

    I don't know what all this nonsense is about Flood being weak in defence.

    Don't forget defence is 10% tackle, 90% positioning & awareness.

    Which means that Flood is 90% better in defence than Tindall, who can certainly tackle but has the defensive awareness of a 5-year-old.

  • Comment number 98.

    Also, re: Youngs taking two steps: it's bollollucks. This criticism is always levelled at a scrum half when the team aren't getting on the front foot in the contact and his pack aren't securing clean ruck ball. Ben Youngs, Danny Care, Mike Phillips etc. etc.....we've seen them all have games where they blow away opposition with lightening-quick service and decision-making, and yet we've heard them all, at various times, criticised for 'taking two steps'. You think it's a coincidence that they're not able to replicate lightening service every week?! You think Youngs has just forgotten how to do it?!

    And for all those moaning about dropping Lawes and retaining Deacon: cast aside your media-spawned hero/villain preconceptions and open your eyes......of Palmer, Deacon and Lawes, the latter has been the weakest performer in this world cup so far. It's the clearest and most logical selection criteria you could ask for.

  • Comment number 99.


    oops :( (wum)?

  • Comment number 100.

    I said to someone before the group started that I've followed England in all 3 major sports for a fair while and it would worry me more if they the didn't underachieve at the group stage...


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