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Will England Give Les Bleus any Wiggle-Room?

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This blog is held by two pessimistic fans, one on each side of the Channel. Terrible attempts at wordplay aside, this Saturday’s ‘crunch’ Six Nations clash is difficult to call. Or is it? A pre-game analysis by Ben Johnson. A regression in Northern Hemisphere rugby

Terrible attempts at wordplay aside, this Saturday’s ‘crunch’ Six Nations clash is difficult to call. Or is it?

England hopes could once again rest with Jonny Wilkinson who has shown moments of inspiration and indecision in equal measure thus far. He will be surrounded by inexperience but Sale’s Richard Wigglesworth deserves his chance at scrum-half and it will be interesting to see how they cope with the relatively unknown partnership of Montpellier’s Francois Trinh-Duc and Morgan Parra of Bourgoin. Another factor which may affect the outcome is Marc Lievremont’s decision not to go with a specialist kicker, instead entrusting the responsibility to centre, Damien Traille. This is a bold move and is a sure sign of a great confidence in his side’s ability. If a tight game was anticipated, surely the French coach would reconsider, as Wilkinson has the ability to win a game on penalties alone. This will without doubt be Les Bleus’ toughest test so far in the Six Nations 2008. Although I hope otherwise, I expect them to rise to the occasion. In front of a home crowd eager to be entertained and indeed to avenge the humiliating World Cup defeat at the hands of Brian Ashton’s men, I think they will have slightly too much for England. The one bit of hope I am clinging to however, is the joker in the England pack. Lesley Vainikolo could offer some much needed penetration and his pace and fearsome power and presence could be telling if its tight at the death. This game represents something of a regression in Northern Hemisphere rugby. The two perennial powers of the Six Nations have resorted to nature and one could certainly argue that the French nature is easier on the eye.

Marc Lievremont and his merry band of fishermen

France have been rejuvenated under the guidance of Marc Lievremont and his merry band of fishermen. Les Bleus looked beatable in their first two games but a commitment to their instinctive, attacking style of play deserves great credit. With eight tries in 160 minutes of rugby, the French offer a unique talent and flair to the competition. In previous articles, I have referred to an ‘ugly win’ and how a victory is all important. Yet I admire the way in which Lievremont has gone about picking his squad for this year’s tournament. It could be that England’s pack roll the French over and restrict the opportunities for Cedric Heymans, Vincent Clerc and Aurelien Rougerie. Yet part of me wants to watch these players running with ball in hand, as it is quite simply one of the great sporting sights. Players like Clerc are in the same bracket as Shane Williams, Brian Habana and Daniel Carter - capable of electrifying a game of rugby.

A year of transition is not accepted in England

Lievremont is building a team and he wants them to play in a certain style. Brian Ashton’s problem is that a year of transition is not accepted in England. We as a nation would rather battle through test after test with the same players, being driven by rolling mauls, a strong scrum and a massive pack, than sacrifice one or even two years creating a dazzling young team capable of enthralling Twickenham. One of England’s squad has already shown himself to be an ideal candidate for such a team and at the very highest level. For most of our campaign, and most probably for Saturday’s game he will be languishing on the bench. In the World Cup Final, Matthew Tait came of age and many predicted that he would be a mainstay of this team but it is typical of the English to resort to pragmatism even in the face of such talent. When Ashton was first appointed, those in the know stated that he would distance the side from the dour, forward orientated displays of the England team under Andy Robinson and Clive Woodard. Yet the only difference between the infuriatingly nondescript Ashton and Woodward is the former’s lack of belief in his own philosophy. Even after reaching the World Cup Final, he was criticised by some of his senior players!