Remember the great England World Cup-winning side and the management mantra that came from their head coach Sir Clive Woodward, T-CUP, which was shorthand for ‘Thinking Clearly Under Pressure’? It worked, and England were 2003 RWC winners.
England under Stuart Lancaster have condensed taking control into one word, ‘composure’, and boy were England in control and full of composure through large periods of the match against Ireland last weekend.
It’s the detail international teams go into that makes the difference, and the repetition of game plays, and England have been working on their “Exit Strategy”. To you and me that’s getting out of their own half, relieving pressure, and turning the screw on the opposition.
Against France this will be crucial. Even though England beat Scotland convincingly their exit strategy wasn’t great, whereas the brilliance they showed in that department against Ireland gave them their first win in Dublin for 10 years. Give a team with the attacking potential of France the territory and opportunities England gave the Scots and they will punish you.
Any exit strategy will be null and voidif you make errors, and England have worked specifically on not compounding one error by committing another one straight after. This is called a ‘negative sequence’, and it results in a team piling pressure on themselves.
Against Ireland an example of an English negative sequence happened shortly after the second half kick-off. Ireland kicked long but gave away a penalty, from which England cleared and had a lineout just inside the Irish half. Perfect exit.
England’s throw-in, maul, one pass, but England knock-on (error 1). Ireland scrum, Ireland penalty (error 2). Ireland lineout, England knock-on (error 3). Ireland scrum penalty (error 4), Ireland three points. That was four errors in a row, and with England under the cosh from a negative sequence they let Ireland back into the game. England must avoid that kind of sequence against the French.
The upside of that game was the brilliance displayed when England went down to 14 men. Most of us were thinking there’s no way they would get out of the James Haskell sin-binning without conceding the almost mandatory seven points.
Talk about composure. It was nigh on a perfect display right from the restart. Here is an abbreviated version of the sin-bin period and the how England exited and built pressure with 14 men: Importantly, the re-start went long. After a phase or two Ireland kicked to touch for an England lineout. An England rolling maul ran the clock down, and from there they went through a phase before Ben Youngs kicked downfield. Ireland relieved the pressure by kicking to touch, but remained in their half. All the time the yellow card clock was ticking.
England gathered for the lineout but took their time before the referee told them to hurry up. England called a five man lineout with Robshaw at scrum-half. The ball was caught and mauled, tick-tock, tick-tock. Owen Farrell kicked a wonderful low bobbling ball towards the corner flag of the Irish try-line. Chris Ashton and Mike Brown chased, Rob Kearney was forced into touch. England won the lineout and rolled off the side, with Rory Best caught going in at the side. Penalty England, Farrell three points.
When Ireland re-started there was only 3.17 minutes left on the yellow card clock, tick-tock. Ireland made a huge mistake given the conditions by re-starting short, and England gathered, set, and exited with a Youngs kick. After a couple of phases the Irish kicked out of their half down Brown’s throat.
He exited, shunted the ball back and chased well. Kearney evaded Brown but was caught by Courtney Lawes. Kearney was pinged for not releasing and Farrell did the necessary, and England had three more points. That’s six points in eight minutes and Ireland had hardly been in England’s half.
You cannot underestimate the accuracy of execution to play at that level in those conditions with that pressure. I don’t know what the forecast is for next Saturday afternoon, but if France haven’t worked on smashing England’s exit strategy then the trap door will open and Philippe Saint-Andre’s team will fall through it.
France will be looked upon as an easy home win because of their first two performances, although no-one had them down to lose their first two matches, and they were many people’s favourites to win the Championship. So, how come they are a shadow of the team that won so convincingly in the autumn, totally dismantling the Aussies and comfortably seeing off Argentina and Samoa?
It’s so French. How has coach Saint-Andre lost the minds and confidence of his players, because the personnel is pretty much the same? Fred Michalak was so commanding and decisive three months ago, directing his team and kicking penalties for fun, but now he and a lot of his team-mates are playing like they’ve all had lobotomies.
I spoke to Thomas Castaignède before the Italy game and he told me the French were really worried about the Italians. Apparently, they believed that Jacques Brunel, Italy’s French head coach, knew them all inside-out and would have worked out a game plan to beat them. I couldn’t believe the French national team would be so fragile, but they are proving to be. Respect Italy, yes, but be worried? Why?
I’m trying to resist saying it, but it’s impossible: Which French team will turn up on Saturday?
For their sake it had better be one that has left its mental baggage back in France, otherwise Twickenham will turn into a nightmare for them.