Rugby Union: England's belief can lead to Grand Slam

AS SOMEONE who knows French rugby first hand, Tom Palmer is a fine sounding board when it comes to assessing whether England's Grand Slam hopes will end positively in Paris this evening.

Friday, 18th March 2016, 3:45 pm
Updated Friday, 18th March 2016, 4:05 pm
Benetton Treviso's Tom Palmer (Picture: Marco Sartori).

That the former Leeds Tykes lock, who played at Stade Francais for three years and was actually married in the French capital, is utterly adamant England will win should give all those supporters fearing the worst a little comfort ahead of the Six Nations climax.

They have, of course, been in this position before and failed.

Indeed, Palmer was in the national side himself when they had an opportunity to complete the grand slam in Dublin in 2011 only to be blown away by Ireland, something which occurred again in even more emphatic style two years later, the Welsh then inflicting the mortal blow at Cardiff.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

However, the experienced second-row – he turns 37 a week tomorrow and is currently continuing his continental, peripatetic odyssey with Benetton Treviso in Italy – believes this situation is different.

“England look really quite impressive,” Palmer told the Evening Post, as the newly-installed Six Nations champions seek to claim a first clean sweep since 2003.

“They should win and I think they will win. It’s not presumptuous at all that people do reckon they should do it this time.

“Not only are England playing well, France don’t look like they are organised or know what they’re supposed to be doing, or even trying to do.

“They have a lot of big players but don’t play as a team; England have plenty of talented players and have more structure and belief.”

So, a first grand slam since the spring of their famous World Club dawns then.

But what of Les Bleus? It is often mused that France’s gifted but inconsistent players have too much of the laissez faire about them ever truly to dominate on either the European or global stage.

Palmer, who was a European Challenge Cup finalist with Stade in 2011 the year before he re-joined Wasps, takes a different view.

“I don’t think it’s the mentality of the players; France have just consistently picked poor coaches recently for the national team,” he offered.

So what does he make of England’s current chief, Eddie Jones, the man who stands on the verge of greatness, just a few months after taking over from the chastised Stuart Lancaster following the hosts’ abject World Cup failure?

Palmer, who knows Lancaster having worked with him at Headingley and again for his country in 2012, is certainly a fan of the Australian’s approach.

“The way England are playing is down to Eddie Jones,” he said.

“He’s made some brave choices with his selections, but they have really paid off.

“He picked Maro Itoje when the safe thing to do would have been to stick with Geoff Parling, Courtney Lawes or Joe Launchbury – tried and trusted players – but he’s come in and been excellent.”

A big talking point ahead of tonight’s game is undoubtedly the emergence of Itoje, the athletic Saracens lock who just four games into his international career is already being tipped as a future England captain and, dare it be said, the next Martin Johnson.

As a fellow lock, Palmer is well-placed to appraise the impressive 21-year-old who debuted off the bench in England’s second Six Nations game in Rome, but has advanced so swiftly that he has started the last two fixtures and was a stand-out man of the match in the crucial Triple Crown win over Wales a week ago.

“It’s difficult to say how good he could be,” said Palmer.

“I mean they said I’d be the next Martin Johnson when I first came on the England scene and that never quite worked out. But he does look really good and has all the attributes.

“If he can stay fit, he’ll have a fantastic career but that’s the thing now – the game is so physical. It will be hard now to have as long a career as someone like me. People my age – 36 – are just retiring, but players coming through at the moment are getting more and more injuries as the game has got so hard.”