On a number of fronts this was the great leap forward for which rugby union has been patiently waiting. If every international game was as much fun as England’s comeback victory against France then there would be no concern about the sport’s financial outlook, the only issue being the record size of the free-to-air audience when these sides meet again in Paris next season. Anyone who saw the first half, in particular, will be desperate to watch the sequel.
Even if the Six Nations, or part of it, ends up disappearing behind a paywall, there is a good deal more chance of rugby recapturing the public imagination if the unfettered approach shown by all involved becomes de rigueur. Long before Maro Itoje crashed over for the 76th-minute try that has done wonders for Wales’s title effort, there was a sense of England’s attacking game finally re-emerging from the induced coma into which it had apparently been placed.
While there were occasional flickers against Italy and Wales, here was a genuine glimpse of a “new England”, or at least an England no longer shackled by an overly prescriptive gameplan and the “ticking timebomb” message that encouraged getting rid of the ball skywards at the first possible opportunity. As some of us have been repeatedly saying, this red rose team could become a truly outstanding one if – weather permitting – they are prepared to trust their instincts, and backline runners, a little more.
How encouraging for England fans, therefore, to hear Billy Vunipola suggest “this could be a springboard for us” and potentially a blueprint for how he and this team will consistently seek to play from now on.
“We talked about wanting to be the greatest team in the world and this will give us confidence: knowing that we can mix it with the best teams and beat them,” the No 8 said. “There’s still huge disappointment with the fact we’re going to Ireland without the title on the line but this was a really good step forward for us as a group of players.”
Amen to that. How much better England look when they really take the game to the opposition, even sides of the quality of Les Bleus. Itoje and their opening try-scorer, Anthony Watson, were deservedly singled out for post-match praise but George Ford, Owen Farrell and Tom Curry also had their best games of this long winter, giving France no respite even after the classy visitors had taken a deserved half-time lead.
When Ford, in particular, stands flatter and has a range of attacking options from which to select, he looks a different player from the deep-lying missile launcher he was starting to become. They always say you learn more from your defeats than from your victories and England’s losses against Scotland and Wales have finally enabled the penny to drop. Keep hold of the ball and stay on the right side of referees and talented individuals will have a much better chance to breathe and express themselves.
While it will not be enough this season to defend the Six Nations title it does enable Eddie Jones’s squad to head for Dublin in significantly better heart and with the mental handbrake off. Who knows what the precise trigger ultimately was – perhaps dressing-room frustration after the Scotland game, or a fear of a selectorial reshuffle in the event of another defeat – but England will look back at Saturday as the moment Test rugby began to feel enjoyable again.
Had that attitudinal shift occurred a few weeks earlier, it would have saved a lot of people plenty of angst. Plainly England want to be strong and dominant up front but, as Jones has been aware for a while, the game is changing. “There’s such competition for sport at the moment that nearly every sport is moving towards being more entertaining and the laws are encouraging teams to play in what might be deemed a more entertaining way,” the head coach said.
“We always had in mind that we would keep developing our ability to attack with the ball in hand, passing and running, but still have our attritional set-piece game to fall back on. We’re trying to get that balance right at the moment … The team’s going through a bit of a transition but we’ve got to keep at it because we have a plan in place of where we want to be by the World Cup.”
In that regard it will be fascinating to see how much further Curry can develop in the meantime, the Sale flanker continuing to impress even a taskmaster as hard as Jones with his commitment. “He’s still only 22 and his body’s still filling out. But he’s become a real leader within our team, he drives the physical standards and he’s only going to keep improving. It’s frightening to think what he’s going to be like by the World Cup. He doesn’t know and I don’t know how good he can be – but we intend to find out.”
Only a complacent Englishman, nevertheless, would gaze across the Channel and discern a France side unlikely to mature and improve further by 2023. The first‑half tries scored by Antoine Dupont and Damian Penaud were things of beauty and with slightly more composure the visitors might have left their hosts with too much to do. Even a bonus-point win in Paris this Saturday may not stop Wales hoisting this year’s title, but some significant shoots of recovery are emerging on both sides of the Channel.