Whatever the luminescent scoreboard at the Stade de France said last Saturday night, England kicked off their 2014 RBS Six Nations campaign with a victory.
Perhaps not one that was worth the two points that would have put them joint top of the embryonic table and set them on their way to a Grand Slam – but a moral victory certainly.
For all but ten minutes at the start – when, let’s face it, a rugby ball could have ricocheted or bounced differently, and the end of the game, Stuart Lancaster’s men were the better side.
Don’t believe me? Well, for starters they won the battle for possession 59 percent to 41, territory 63-37 and metres-gained 645-460 and while those statistics might not have counted for anything on Saturday, they certainly will in the weeks and months going forward.
Why? Because it was impossible to ignore the fact the national team turned a tactical corner and Owen Farrell was central to that process.
Whether he realised it himself or his father Andy, England’s backs coach pointed it out, whether it was an explicit policy or an accident of circumstance, the Red Rose fly-half played his best game of Test rugby. And he did it standing much closer to the gain-line.
The stats certainly reflect well on Farrell. His three off-loads were second only to Stuart Hogg in the entire weekend and he kicked just 11 times, two less than that paragon of running rugby Danny Care.
Most of the Saracens playmaker’s international career has been undermined by his tendency to hide in the pocket, and that has rippled down the threequarter line to leave the outside backs with far too much ground to make up before they even reached a defence that had time to organise.
But in Paris on Saturday evening Farrell was refreshingly flat and the pass that put Billy Vunipola through a half gap and resulted in Luther Burrell scoring on his debut was a perfect example of what he should be doing.
As long as runners as powerful as the No.8 and Northampton centre are coming on to the ball at speed Farrell’s sleight of hand will put them through areas where the defensive line is weak.
Like Bath’s George Ford does so instinctively, a flatter, more threatening Farrell sows seeds of doubt in defenders’ minds and that creates opportunities for others. With Vunipola in rampaging form, his 17 carries were second only to one-man team Sergio Parisse, and genuine threat from young wingers Jack Nowell and Jonny May, Farrell and England seem ten-times more dangerous.
Indeed that’s shown by the 645m England made – almost twice as many as Scotland managed against Ireland. France were the next highest with 460m – that’s some disparity – and Farrell, who made a few of them himself, has to take credit for that. Two of the weekend’s top four ground-gainers were English, Nowell with 81m and Alex Goode with 77. Italy’s Michele Campagnaro led the way with 107 thanks largely his interception try.
And get this for a stat – England beat more defenders, 28, than Wales and Italy put together. They might have lost a penny in France, but they found a pound.