England are the new Ireland
During the first two matches of the Six Nations, England have been at their most clinical and ruthless under Eddie Jones.
Two of their four tries in Dublin came from continual pressure on the opposition, squeezing them until chances presented themselves and then pouncing: Elliot Daly profited from an error from Jacob Stockdale, and Henry Slade leapt on a stray pass from Johnny Sexton to score late on.
Against France, Owen Farrell and Daly targeted the right wing - Damian Penaud - incessantly in the first half, with high kicks and grubbers in behind, designed to turn the 22-year-old, who usually plays at centre for Clermont Auvergne.
Then, with ball in hand, they threw it fast and wide to isolate him against the speed and finishing ability of Jonny May. It was smart, tactical thinking - hallmarks more associated with Joe Schmidt’s Ireland over the past 18 months. England targeted their opponents’ weak spot and exploited it time and again. It led to three May tries inside half an hour, which effectively killed the game.
France’s enormous potential remains untapped
Every year, pundits and journalists desperately try to avoid trotting out the old cliché of: “you just don’t know which France are going to turn up”. But there was no need to worry at Twickenham on Sunday as France simply didn’t turn up at all.
The team that troubled Wales so much in the opening 40 minutes a week ago was nowhere to be seen, and in their place was a disorganised rabble more in keeping with the XV that capitulated to the opening-round defeat. Six changes didn’t help the lack of cohesion, but it was the back three where France were most brutally exposed, with England ruthlessly targeting the out-of-position backs. Poor Penaud had an afternoon to forget, left on his own time and again as he attempted to turn and out-pace an electric May.
The only solace for the visitors was that they kept the score down in the second half to prevent a rout of even more historic proportions.
Manu has world at his feet. Again.
Teams in the Six Nations are worried about Manu Tuilagi. For France they were fretting before he even stepped on the pitch - switching their centres from their opening match against Wales for the heavyweight combination of Mathieu Bastareaud and Geoffrey Doumayrou.
Tuilagi followed up his wrecking ball display against Ireland, whose concern over the Leicester centre grew with every minute in Dublin, with a more subdued display against France in only his second start in the Six Nations since 2013.
But do not underestimate his impact in the first two matches, despite a couple of handling errors and not getting on the scoresheet at Twickenham. In the intervening six years since he last made the starting XV in this tournament, England have never fully solved their midfield muddle, with the Sam Burgess debacle at the 2015 World Cup - which Tuilagi missed after assaulting a police officer - proving to be a big part in the departure of Stuart Lancaster.
England's centre Manu Tuilagi makes a break during the Six Nations international rugby union match between England and France at Twickenham stadium in south-west London on February 10, 2019.
Image credit: Getty Images
But now he is back, England’s midfield makes sense again. Owen Farrell - another crucial cog - can dictate from No 10 and the 27-year-old Tuilagi, with his peerless power and pace can draw men to him like a magnet in attack. This creates space for forwards around the fringes and the likes of Slade and May who scored four tries between them against France - outside him.
After his try against New Zealand in 2012 at Twickenham, it seemed he could be cornerstone of England’s attempt on a second World Cup title. The same could be said again this year - he just has to stay fit and focused.
May has developed into a world-class performer
Johnny May’s England career has been infuriating at times, with crabbing and aimless runs across the pitch becoming close to his trademark. But the last couple of years have seen the Leicester flier blossom into a genuine world-class winger, finally confident enough to back his own pace and turn his biggest asset into a potent attacking weapon.
May’s defence and ability under the high ball are both much-improved, but as an attacking threat he is now one of the most dangerous in world rugby. The step for his second try was the mark of a player at the very stop of his game, while the scooped finish for his hat-trick score was a finish of far higher technical difficulty than it at first appeared.
England’s first two wins have been built on their aggressive defence, and masterminded by former All Blacks coach John Mitchell. England - in total contrast to France, who seemed to allow Farrell time enough for a quick cup of tea before kicking to the corners in open play - suffocated their opponents when in possession with their high-energy rucking and speed to the tackle.
Sebastien Vahaamahina of France is stopped by Jamie George and Mark Wilson of England during the Guinness Six Nations match between England and France at Twickenham Stadium on February 10, 2019 in London, England.
Image credit: Ford Rallye
The key to this improved defensive display? According to Mitchell - who could be an option to replace Eddie Jones after the World Cup - it’s not wanting to ‘let down your mates’.
Indeed, ahead of the tournament, England went to Vilamoura in Portugal to a less-than-plush resort and also had some fun in a ‘Fight Club’ bar before their flight out of the UK. It's little touches like this that seem to have produced a more cohesive unit, playing for each other, rather than a spot on the plane to Tokyo.
England seem to be enjoying their rugby again, after a six-game winless streak in 2018. And although Mitchell will not be happy with a slightly sloppy try conceded against Les Bleus, the team bonding and attack built on a dominant defence, seems to be working.
England must be wary of World Cup complacency
France and England will meet again in the World Cup pool stage later this year, but that test will bear little resemblance to the one-sided encounter at Twickenham. France have a history of peaking for World Cups and this crop of players has too much talent to arrive in Japan in the tactical muddle that was on show in west London. And the big danger for England is that such a convincing victory in a recent encounter could breed complacency – something that Eddie Jones will no doubt be more than aware of.
France were a disorganised mess at Twickenham and paid a significant price for their latest selection rethink. However, the first 40 minutes against Wales showed that there is something for the French to work on and arrive in Tokyo ready to genuinely challenge the best in the world.