Rugby Union: LEGENDS OF THE FALL; France 24 England 21 FROM WORLD CHAMPIONS TO THIRD BEST IN EUROPE French Lesson for Cup Heroes but Woodward Says: No Crisis

The Mirror (London, England), March 29, 2004 | Go to article overview

Rugby Union: LEGENDS OF THE FALL; France 24 England 21 FROM WORLD CHAMPIONS TO THIRD BEST IN EUROPE French Lesson for Cup Heroes but Woodward Says: No Crisis


Byline: Alex Spink RUGBY CORRESPONDENT IN PARIS

WHEN the curtain fell on England's worst ever Six Nations campaign, Sir Clive Woodward refused to panic.

Not since 1993 had England lost two games in a championship season - and defeat on Saturday left the world champions in third place behind France, winners of the Grand Slam, and Ireland, wearers of the Triple Crown.

Woodward had warned the French his England team would do their talking on the pitch - only they barely said a word until they trailed 21-3 at half-time.

And he had taunted Bernard Laporte's side that only rain had saved them from a hammering in the World Cup semi-final, before suffering one of the greater three-point stuffings of this or any other era on a perfectly dry night.

But as France celebrated their fourth Slam in seven years Woodward held his head high. "Of course it's disappointing to lose, there's no point hiding from that," he said. "But this has been a great season.

"Right now, seeing us third in the table makes me angry, but if someone had offered me the World Cup in return for losing two Six Nations matches I'd have shaken their hand very firmly." The truth is England have fallen a long way from the heady heights of a year ago, when they Slammed the Irish by 40 points in Dublin and set sail to conquer the world.

Legends have retired or are absent through long-term injury - Jonny Wilkinson will definitely miss the Powergen Cup final and is unlikely to tour with England this summer.

Some, like Will Greenwood and Phil Vickery, are pale imitations of the players they were. Others, like Richard Hill, Jason Robinson and Josh Lewsey, no longer seem to be in their best positions.

Indeed, it is remarkable to think only seven weeks have passed since Italy coach John Kirwan declared that only a "bazooka" would stop England in this championship.

England have been slow to recognise the diminishing of their powers. On Saturday morning Wilkinson began his newspaper column with the statement: "I don't really know the answers with England at the moment."

And yet the squad retains a self-belief commensurate with its number one ranking. Or rather it did before it was pulverised in the second quarter at Stade de France by a French team inspired by two players England didn't rate: Imanol Harinordoquy and Dimitri Yachvili. …

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