It’s a new chapter for France and the goal is 2023. They are going to have some growing pains along the way but at the start of a difficult journey you often get off to a good start. It gives you confidence for the journey to follow.
In his book, The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho calls it the principle of favourability or, in simpler terms, beginner’s luck. Maybe because I believe in that, it came so readily to my mind as I watched on at the Stade de France and saw the game unfold.
All week in Paris there was a feelgood factor about the French team. The selection of Les Bleus was welcomed across the board as a positive one and it was backed up with staff changes that also gave the feeling of something new afoot.
Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack are the poster boys for the new wave but quickly followed by the likes of the injured Damian Penaud, Julien Marchand, Virimi Vakatawa and Charles Ollivon. I actually think you could keep naming many more – the production line is long and with lasting talent.
Media-wise it was all underplayed and understated. The results of all this were pretty evident in those first 40 minutes. Tackles stuck and momentum was made. The bigger picture is the 2023 World Cup in France and with the age and talent profile of the team they are on course to reach maturity at the right time.
You can see there is still more to do and I’m sure France will have some bumps along the way, but the foundations are clearly being put in place. The togetherness was also evident and it was based firmly on effort and outcome. It looked natural, and it just didn’t look like that on the other side of the pitch with England.
I’m lucky enough in my day-to-day working life to see some amazing high-performance environments. Many of them have so many moving parts that you always have to remind yourself of what really needs the focus. Get too close to everything and the “noise” can just drown out the “signals.” It felt like that with England. It didn’t always look authentic. It didn’t look owned. Then on comes Ellis Genge and I see a player doing his thing the way he wants and I park that thought.
Maybe I’m the one that’s over-analysing it all. Then the feeling re-emerges when you notice a forced pat on the back after something on the field that didn’t need that. So it continued. A loop of what looks natural and what looks coerced.
You look up at the England coaches’ box and what sticks out is an England security guard who is standing up for the entire game as the coaches watch over their flock. It all just feels overly managed and, while not suffocating, short of breath.
I don’t think this England team have underperformed in various games for any other reason than they have lacked autonomy and freedom from external control. Having a bus not turn up on purpose or a meeting changed at the last minute is not creating autonomy. It’s creating a false ownership. It’s not creating a mental safety net for the players to really feel they can do what they want without fear.
It is not totally absent and you see snippets of ownership and freedom but it’s not shining through as it does with the very best teams. Yes, create structure and clear black-and-white on and off the field. But make what’s inside those guardrails full of autonomy and player-led decisions. That would give enhanced belief and purpose to allow this England team to move on and genuinely reach for the lofty goals they publicly set out last week.
This result wasn’t about the French having freedom and England not. It was about a resurgent France that England couldn’t respond to, bar Jonny May’s individual efforts. Selection and Plan Bs are just a side story.
The real reason England are not always at the level they can be is autonomy. They need to be truly allowed to be in the driving seat. If it stays the same, well, the rollercoaster will continue.