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SIR CLIVE WOODWARD: England’s fear of losing is holding them back

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If we learned one thing from the Autumn Cup final at Twickenham on Sunday, it is that France will be the team to beat at the 2023 World Cup.

As a demonstration of their strength in depth and latent talent it was hugely impressive, although Les Blues will ultimately be disappointed to have lost this game.

France made a mess of the last two minutes of normal time and challenged at the breakdown unnecessarily. They should have let England have the ball and fanned out across the field, a defensive system that had worked well all afternoon.

England won the Autumn Nations Cup final in sudden death against a youthful France team

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Les Bleus showed England what they could do despite missing several first-team regulars

Les Bleus showed England what they could do despite missing several first-team regulars

Instead they dived in and coughed up the penalty from which England drilled the ball into the corner and went to work. That was the decisive moment and, although England were good enough and disciplined enough to make it count and force sudden death, France will be kicking themselves.

Until that moment, their Shaun Edwards-drilled defence had looked rock solid.

They also got unlucky with a bad call. From the kick-off after half-time in extra-time, it was pretty clear that Sekou Macalou had not knocked on. The TMO should have stepped in. As it was, England got the scrum and cleared, and France were denied crucial field position.

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England — and this group of talented players — can rise to the challenge over the next couple of years but they won’t win a World Cup by playing the brand of rugby they have produced this autumn.

England will not win a World Cup playing the brand of rugby they have displayed this autumn

England will not win a World Cup playing the brand of rugby they have displayed this autumn

England's kicking game has become too crude and predictable, it lets opponents off the hook

England’s kicking game has become too crude and predictable, it lets opponents off the hook

They must find ways of offering much more in attack. Certainly nobody is losing sleep in Cape Town or Auckland watching England kick the ball away incessantly.

The players know that — you could sense it in the post-match interviews — and hopefully this performance will have provided the wake-up call they need.

They have been sceptical of criticism, but having scraped a win against a France team missing their 30 best players, there can be no arguments now.

I have no issue with the team selected. That was England’s best side yesterday, with the possible exception of injured duo Manu Tuilagi and Mako Vunipola. But at present they are not maximising their potential.  

Their kicking game has been too crude and predictable — kick tennis was the rut they got into again yesterday — and it doesn’t challenge and stress the opposition. It lets them off the hook.

England must bring their dynamic runners into the game and develop a more sophisticated, all-court strategy. I accept this can take time to evolve, but the clock is ticking.

That is why I remain disappointed we saw so little emphasis on attack this autumn.

One of the more mystifying statements from Eddie Jones recently was that England were not going to look at their attacking until after the Lions tour next year. Really?

The fear of losing is holding England back.

Individually, Billy Vunipola has been a big success in recent weeks. I wrote after the Georgia win that he seemed back to his best — fit, busy, involved — and he maintained that throughout the tournament. 

Billy Vunipola (centre) has been a huge success for England in recent weeks, back to his best

Billy Vunipola (centre) has been a huge success for England in recent weeks, back to his best

He has refined his tackling technique, is going lower like Tom Curry and Sam Underhill, and pulled off at least three piledrivers yesterday.

But let’s finish with the French. I’ve been beating the drum on this for a while, and at times I suspect people have thought I was overstating the case.

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After all, France finished runners-up to England in the Six Nations and they are a long way from the finished article.

All that is true. But having tracked the France Under 20 team who won two junior World Cups on the bounce, and having spent a lot of time in France in recent years, I have sensed their strength in depth building, along with their belief in the new generation. 

France have sensed their strength in depth building, along with this new generation's belief

France have sensed their strength in depth building, along with this new generation’s belief

Throw in a forward-looking coach in Fabien Galthie, and Edwards driving them to new levels of fitness and determination defensively, and they are suddenly becoming formidable.

England v France games have lacked the authentic Le Crunch element for a while, but the three Six Nations encounters between now and the World Cup are going to be epic, probably Championship-deciding contests.

We are entering a vintage era of Anglo-French clashes once again — Le Crunch is back!

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