France should have come to Twickenham in a clown car for their ritual 44-8 humiliation by England.

By tradition the easy beats in Six Nations rugby are the Italian team. The poor guys have basically become the Washington Generals of the oval ball. Over six decades the Generals played around 16,000 games of basketball against the Harlem Globetrotters, and won once. ("It felt like shooting Santa Claus", said the Generals' owner.)

But the way France are travelling now they're heading towards the same sort of mediocrity that Italy sadly showed yet again when they lost 26-15 to a leaden footed Welsh side in Rome in the weekend.

The first French team I saw was in 1961 at Eden Park. They lost, but they were still pretty good. There have been some great sides since. In 1994 they came to New Zealand and hammered an All Black team that a year later would make the final of the World Cup.


This year's French model is the worst I've ever seen. The first 40 minutes against Wales a week ago, when France ran up 16 unanswered points with beautiful, angled, precise running, and brilliant use of the ball in hand was, it seems, some sort of weird con game, bait for suckers like me to believe there might be a Gallic revival in the wind.

England played a terrific first half against the French at Twickenham, better than their victory over Ireland.

Jonny May is lightning in a bottle on the English wing, and all his three tries were richly deserved.

But if you believe body language tells a story, it was depressing to see not one Frenchman make even a token attempt at a charge down when Owen Farrell was taking conversion attempts out wide.

The only bright spots in the second half, when England fumbled their way almost down to the knocking on, forward passing, ball dropping shambles that was France, came from referee Nigel Owens.

I was already an Owens' fan boy when he spoke at an Auckland charity event for multiple sclerosis in 2017, and wowed us all with his honesty, and self-deprecation. It was a couple of days before a test at Eden Park, and he said, "Watch me closely as I run on to the field for the first time. You'll see my lips moving as I say the mantra I always do before a game." His spellbound audience waited for the words of wisdom. "Yes, I always say to myself, 'Don't f*** it up'."

He defused a stupid bout of handbag swinging triggered by England prop Kyle Sinckler who was (I am not making this up) trying to pull a Frenchman's hair out of his scrumcap, and, after instantly awarding a penalty try to England, had the humility to double check with his TMO that England's Chris Ashton had been tackled without the ball by Gael Fickou.

Unlike far too many northern referees he has a genuine feel for the game, and the backbone to run things his way.


England's coach Eddie Jones reckoned the second half against France was better than the first, because they kept France scoreless. Eddie has been known to talk in tongues, but this might have been a genuine reaction.

Defence will win games, and England's defence is generally superb. What's disconcerting is the Jones' mindset that apparently is heartened more by not conceding a point in 40 minutes of the second half, rather than scoring 30 in the first. Lovers of free flowing rugby might be advised to avoid the England-Wales test in Cardiff on Sunday week.

Footnote: Aussie expat coach Matt Williams was talking about the Irish attack when he used the phrase "as exciting as watching paint drying", but I'd apply it to the whole test when Ireland beat Scotland 22-13. And I'm sorry for picking on Owen Farrell, a hell of a goalkicker, and a terrific general at first-five, but who really is a terrible tackler. Good on him for a strip of the ball from a French attacker, but his one failed attempt at a head on tackle had all the ferocity of a timid Morris dancer.

* Phil Gifford joins Simon Barnett on the new Newstalk ZB Afternoons show from July 2019