Dowson family… look away now.
Not only is your magnificent specimen of a boy about to be laid very low by his own hugely brave but slightly bambi-esque attempt at last-ditch defending but he is about to get a face-full of studs from a no doubt grateful but in this moment elsewhere-fixated colleague. A bloke called Croft, who has earlier almost single-handedly doused French fires before accidentally and unfortunately crowning your son’s nozzer.
This can happen; to anyone. Anyone who is laying their body on the line – that particularly significant lime-washed line – in the dying moments of an Anglo-French rendez-vous characteristically loaded with thuddingly adversarial ros-bif. Also, in this climactic period, (some of) the family Farrell wince as the relatively diminutive Owen of their nobly tuned-in clan trammels up some oncoming euro-bison as he pounds into the 22. It’s a juddering impact shared by those in white – fist-clenchingly triumphant – and the bleu contingent, who might only acknowledge the English pivot’s ‘ballons’ in some cafe-bar, later, with a now depressingly articulated gallic shrug.
Emotions arising. From an exhausting encounter, won by the English, who scored tries – who were surely the better side? Away; in France; that place suspected by lilywhites at large of producing dangerously cynical and belligerent forwards and twinkling but unsteady backs. But hadn’t that former twinkler turned prosaic boss Saint-Andre bolstered the French weakness for girly expressivity through wholesale changes at half-back? In doing so surely delivering a hoof-enhanced robustness to his side? Indeed he had. It just didn’t work, entirely.
It didn’t work because Beauxis and Dupuy kicked poorly and because what we should surely now be calling Stuart Lancaster’s England flashed and stormed before them, being both flickeringly, individually inventive and collectively hearty. There was a welcome confidence and edge about England going forward and something close to invincible defiance, yard by yard, in retreat. Late in the game, when the home side finally shook that dark mane free, having lifted its head from some icy barrel, this thing became a Proper Test. A home crowd roaring, a home pack suddenly surging beyond its capacities with a momentum that churned the stomachs of the watching English. But not, apparently, their players.
Every tackle in that relative Parisian crisis bred an eager and an instinctive but heads-up realignment. On 78 minutes Farrell – remarkably – heaves Harinordoquy to a standstill. On 80 plus he hammers the ball jubilantly, in pain, sideways into the crowd before crumpling at the moment of celebration, his ribcage and shoulder area a bruised concertina. The last eight minutes or so had been a huge and increasingly physical challenge for Lancaster’s posse; it was one that almost to a man they accepted and rebuffed with equal and united purpose. These minutes alone may have seen off the challenge of Nick Mallett as well as the challenge of this ultimately ordinary French side. Perhaps.
The subject of Lancaster’s seamless promotion has already occupied most of the post-match coverage. Rightly, Sir Stuart-in-Waiting has eloquently side-stepped the issue – in much the same way that the strikingly rejuvenated Croft eased by a bewildered Rougerie for his stunning try. Lancaster – sometimes to my frustration, I admit – has talked a good game, an even-tempered game, in a way that makes some of us want to throw soft toys at the telly. He is so deep into the culture of Coaching Responsibility and Calm that he appears on time to have sacrificed any real personality he may have for some imagined cleaner, higher purpose. (Either that or he is one terrifying boring bastard.) However, even cynics(?) or optimists(?) like me who crave for the ungroomed or the truly original must surely concede the man has done a blinding job.
England have had players for some years. Now they have a unit which has a powerful understanding of fair expectation; to commit bravely and fully and generously to the wonderful and silly notion that mates and fans alike must be carried, connected, on that national badge, through that roll of emotion and pride and volcanic charge to some fulfilling, unknowable end. A place where your best is good enough, provided it is a wholehearted best; a best expressive of actually rather profound, communal aspirations. Lancaster’s lot really do appear to have re-connected to this… for want of a better phrase… love of the game. And – not insignificantly – they have won three times now away from home.
But look; let’s get realer. This stuff may not move those who will choose the next England coach. They will quite rightly take a dispassionate view; one fostered by continual exposure to rule by committee. They will examine the credentials of the small handful(?) of contenders and they will do it whilst twirling expensive pens in an airless room where even memories are nullified. The immediate renaissance of fleshy resistance from Robshaw and co may not register here. Hypothetical achievements under contrasting new leaders will be imagined… and the weightless protractedly weighed. And Lancaster – despite being in post and serenely so – may not get the nod. Because a) ‘things aren’t that simple’ and b) there simply is no justice.
So that ten minute period – that mauve patch? – in the first half at The Stade, when England destroyed the French with (amongst other things) a crushing tackle from the stropmeister Ashton, brilliantly exploited by Dickson’s quick hands and Tuilagi’s irresistible charge, may not be as seminally influential as it felt. The nature, the ludicrous majesty of Morgan’s bursts into rural France, followed by his exquisite offloading to support may not count for his gaffer. Even though we felt they were landmark statements of new-found belief; such things fade; such things fade.
In beating France, in finding something to believe in, the English have transformed both themselves and arguably this Six Nations tournament. They have genuinely become the second best team in Europe. They have begun to shake off their unholy and unworthy past. They have, in a really good way, made the choice for their next Head Coach a very, very big call.