England set the pace; France falter
Mon, 11 Feb 2013 15:47
We must not be scared
As the Six Nations Championship takes a two-week break, it is England who have emerged as the pacesetters with Stuart Lancaster's men the only side with a 100 percent record after two matches.
In beating world champions New Zealand 38-21 at Twickenham in December, England put themselves in the spotlight.
But they have responded to the burden of expectation with contrasting wins over Scotland (38-18) and Ireland (12-6).
If the Calcutta Cup clash showed their attacking game to good effect, Sunday's 'ugly', try-less win at a rain-lashed Lansdowne Road would, in some ways, have been even more pleasing for Lancaster.
"Coming into the Six Nations we had to back up that performance against New Zealand," said England forwards coach Graham Rowntree.
"We did that last week [against Scotland] and then we had to do it away from home, because that defines you as a group of players.
"Going forward it will be fantastic to get that under their belts. They upped their game because they knew it would be a massive challenge."
With flyhalf Owen Farrell demonstrating a maturity well beyond his 21 years and the side again well led by impressive flanker Chris Robshaw, England achieved a first Six Nations victory in Dublin since their last Grand Slam in the Red Rose's World Cup-winning year of 2003.
Of course, pitfalls remain, not least a Championship finale against Wales.
As the unheralded Lancaster soaks up the plaudits, former France captain turned coach Philippe Saint-Andre faces questions over his selection policy in keeping half-backs Morgan Parra and Francois Trinh-Duc on the bench while persisting with the misfiring duo of Maxime Machenaud and Frederic Michalak.
Saturday's 16-6 defeat by Wales in Paris witnessed a desperately sluggish display by 2011 World Cup finalists France, who came second best to a Welsh side ending a run of eight straight defeats.
For all the concerns about foreign players in France's top 14, they are not short of home-grown talent which makes the fact they are currently bottom of the Six Nations table, having suffered a shock first round loss to Italy, all the more outstanding.
"We must not be scared," Saint-Andre said of France's match away to England at Twickenham on February 28, "Rugby can always produce surprises and we must go there with our heads held high."
Whether Wales can, in the words of fullback Leigh Halfpenny, "now carry on with our mission to retake that title as champions" remains to be seen but at least they have eased the pressure on interim head coach Rob Howley, in charge while Warren Gatland is seconded to the British and Irish Lions.
Italy surpassed all expectations in beating France but the difficulty of playing away from the Olympic Stadium was emphasised by a comprehensive 34-10 defeat by a resurgent Scotland.
However, the fact both nations are increasingly competitive after years of monopolising the wooden spoon between them can only be good for the tournament.
As for Ireland, stringing two wins together remains an elusive goal.
But, as Ireland coach Declan Kidney said after the England match: "There's still a hell of a lot to play for. Let's get to eight points and see where we are at the end of it."
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