France might be famed for their classic desire to attack from anywhere, but that “jouer rugby” attitude boasts a new dimension rooted in football’s blueprint to beat the high press.
When Les Bleus throw a wide pass out of the back door in their own 22 on Saturday, or punt a cross-field kick to the wing from their own line, they will throw caution to the wind.
As global elite soccer will pass out from the back to break the likes of Ralf Rangnick’s Gegenpress and Jurgen Klopp’s heavy metal football, so rugby now, too, looks ready to follow suit.
Test rugby defences are so sophisticated and robust that at times the most space to attack a rearguard set-up is from a team’s own 22. A defending team must prepare for the standard 22 exit strategy of a deep punt into space or a touch-finder, and that often means leaving as many as three players in the back field. That, in turn, creates more space in the front defensive line than will be the case when closing in on the opponent’s whitewash.
John Barnes had football’s World in Motion with his rap to ‘get round the back’ as long ago as Italia 90, and rugby has its equivalent message in attacking from deep. Break a team’s defensive set-up, force your way behind the gainline to turn the opponent and, provided you keep momentum and do not make mistakes, a try-scoring chance is likely to come your way.
France, under forward-thinking boss Fabien Galthie and defensive mastermind Shaun Edwards, know this more than most, and will look to cut loose from their own territory on Saturday — but only in the right circumstances.
England have not yet reached such a developmental stage under Steve Borthwick. But then, livewire fly-half Marcus Smith has been preferred to Owen Farrell from the off, in a bid to push the tempo. So, while it might prove a leap in Borthwick’s embryonic tenure, England will have the personnel to launch such a long-range attack.
‘Le Crunch’ might just be a moniker clumsy enough to sum up an entente more awkward than cordiale. There could, however, be no better ‘Rosbif’ captain for this enduring clash than Ellis Genge. The Bristol prop will look to roast Les Bleus’ pack in the finest medium-rare tradition. Genge boasts the best of the amateur era’s posturing, mixed with the crucial modern-day focus.
France will find out exactly what it means to Ellis Genge to captain his country
Gone are the days when Brian Moore could lend his pugnacious name to a best-bits video branded “Pitbull’s Punch-ups”, but Genge embodies that battling spirit that so enlivens any England-France clash. From modest beginnings to England captain, Genge’s story is one to challenge rugby’s order, and in the most positive way. Bluntly, England need more players like Genge, who will become England’s third captain of a minority ethnic background.
The establishment will always look after the, well, established routes into the game. Rugby still needs to open more avenues to the top, but Genge’s example on its own can broaden minds in those from similar backgrounds considering giving the game a go. He simmers with fire and physicality, and it is no small leap to picture his rage against the machine to make it to the top.
But to pigeon-hole Saturday’s England captain would be insulting in the extreme. Genge is also thoughtful, considered, articulate, informed and opinionated. As he knows when to reach an emotional pitch, so, too, he understands the right time to make his point, and when to hold his tongue.
Asked if he had studied the history of the Calcutta Cup before England hosted Scotland in this year’s Six Nations opener, Genge confirmed he had looked into the origins of rugby’s oldest trophy. But he stopped short of diving into the roots of British Empire so obviously tangled up in a cup originally fashioned from melted Rupee coins in 1878. Genge knows the detail, and the cultural and ethnic significance, but he also chose not to dig too deep in the days before a pivotal Test match.
Men like him know exactly where they are from; acutely aware of their cultural position in Britain’s complicated story. Genge can be at once informed on the past yet prepared to play rugby in the present for a different future. France will find out exactly what it means to Genge to captain his country.