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SIR CLIVE WOODWARD: Forget pats on the back England need to focus on dazzling again

On Saturday morning I predicted an England win over France by a point and said if that occurred it would be a cause for both celebration and an inquest.

This was based on France’s history of not winning big matches when favourites and the fact that all of England’s best performance under Eddie Jones have come as underdogs. Based on those observations, there was only one winner!

So while acknowledging a superb England performance, a victory that put smiles back on the faces of the players and all those who believe in them, we should ask where has that England team been for the last year or so?

Maro Itoje’s late game-winning try handed England a stunning victory after a superb display

The 23-20 victory over France put smiles back on the faces of players after a tricky 12 months

The 23-20 victory over France put smiles back on the faces of players after a tricky 12 months

How did England get themselves into such a rut and why, quite frankly, had it become such a chore to watch them?

A pattern has emerged over the past five years of England hitting their straps only for their performance to drop off.

England must now go from strength to strength and focus on becoming the team to beat and enjoying that status.

So at Tuesday morning’s team meeting I would want no patting each other on the back. Just a frank and honest conversation between players and coaches. These are the meetings, when you have won well, that are perfect for such honesty.

At the World Cup in Japan, the world went into raptures after England’s semi-final win over New Zealand, yet another unrecognisable team turned up seven days later to play South Africa in the final.

I am not convinced the lessons from this team’s meltdown have been properly discussed and that has held them back.

Saturday’s game was another watershed moment. This team can still go one of two ways. Make no mistake, despite losing the French are still the team to beat when the next World Cup is held in France in two years’ time if they, like England, really learn.

Nelson Mandela once said: ‘I never lose. I either win or I learn.’

England must question how they got themselves into such a rut over the past year or so

England must question how they got themselves into such a rut over the past year or so

England’s best performances under Eddie — Ireland and New Zealand in 2019 and France on Saturday — have come, give or take, from the same players who on other occasions have looked turgid and uninspired, so imprisoned by pre-set plays and their unthinking adherence to limited game plans and kicking ploys.

When they break free, like we have occasionally glimpsed, this England team can take on the world and they need to remember what it felt like on Saturday; the sheer joy showcasing your ability against a world- class team and just how good it felt at the final whistle.

It’s a long time since I have seen so many England smiles on the pitch. They need to bottle that feeling and their senior players group — the likes of Owen Farrell, Maro Itoje, Ben Youngs, Anthony Watson — need to resolve that if the coaching gets overbearing and too regulated, if ever the match analysts and specialist coaches throw too much data at them, they will insist on a return to basics and the simpler game plan that has underpinned all their best performances.

This is the moment to spell that out.

There shouldn't be any pats on the back in England's squad meeting after this victory

There shouldn’t be any pats on the back in England’s squad meeting after this victory

And let’s hear no more talk like George Ford suggesting that having possession of the ball is like a ticking time bomb. Or Eddie telling us that selection doesn’t matter and that he will concentrate on England’s attack nearer the 2023 World Cup, as if this is all part of a masterplan.

Let’s also banish talk about the jackal changing the dynamic of the game and the need for box kicks and long bouts of aerial ping pong. You can overcomplicate things.

Laws and their interpretation can and do change, but the basics of world-class winning rugby never change.

Strong scrum, reliable lineout and restart drills, huge tempo on the game, sheer pace, supreme fitness, positive attitude, great individual skills and tigerish disciplined defence. Put all that together every week and you will be a mighty team whatever the laws. And you’ll have a good time doing it.

England need to build on this and focus on becoming the team to beat once again

England need to build on this and focus on becoming the team to beat once again

England got themselves into a rut recently but they dragged themselves out of it on Saturday evening. I give everybody concerned huge credit for that and I was delighted to hear Watson acknowledge that the defeats and decline in performance were not acceptable for a team with such talent.

Let’s never see England regress from what we all lapped up against France. Occasionally against a brilliant side, or if you don’t enjoy the rub of the green, they will lose playing like that but very rarely. Just keep the faith.

So this Saturday, England have another free pass as far as I’m concerned in Dublin.

Go again, play that fast-tempo, vivid game. Not headless Barbarians stuff but state-of-the-art, 21st century attacking rugby. Enjoy yourselves and you might even find a new level.

Ireland at the Aviva is the opportunity to finish the campaign with a smile on faces and a spring in the step. Not just for the team but the fans as well. 

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