The debate over favorites and underdogs for a major sports game has become cliché, but that’s because it can be vital how you position yourself psychologically.
It’s all about mindset and how to deal with expectation and pressure, which is why, despite an extremely poor Six Nations so far, I’m tipping England to beat France by the narrowest margin on Saturday. And if England can do that, it should be a matter of celebration as well as inquiries!
England under Eddie Jones has never been happy to be a favorite. They much prefer to come in as an underdog when the consequences of losses are not that severe. This may be endemic to British sport. Only a few great individuals and teams thrive on favorites.
England were all smiles in practice as they prepare for their Six Nations clash with France
Eddie Jones’s England doesn’t like to be a favorite – few in today’s sport actually do
Let’s plot England’s recent trajectory to get to grips with this. After the 2015 World Cup, they hit rock bottom, ranked eighth in the world and also scored in their own tournament. A perfect time for a new coach to take over. What happened? A Grand Slam in 2016 and a 3-0 Series win in Australia.
Then came a second Six Nations title and by the end of 2017 England was back at the top of the stack with New Zealand. Here it all started to go wrong again. In 2018 they finished fifth in the championship just above Italy and were 2-1 losers to South Africa on their summer tour. Back to underdogs.
The 2019 season kicked off with a trip to Dublin to play the Grand Slam champions. England produced such a stunning display, followed by a scrapping of France, that they were reinstated as favorites for the tournament, but immediately lost to Wales, eventually scoring 38-38 to the Scots.
England won back-to-back Six Nations after crashing in the 2015 World Cup pool stage
They certainly weren’t favorites at the 2019 World Cup, but built up to a semi-final against New Zealand, which few expected England to win. Eddie addressed a famous press conference before the game and asked those who thought England would win to raise their hands. There were no buyers.
After establishing their underdog status, England delivered one of the best performances of all time to sack New Zealand. A week later it was back to square one. Now they were blood-curdling favorites against South Africa and both the team and the media seemed to believe victory was assured. As we know, that ended very badly.
And so on. After winning the Autumn Cup, England started as a favorite in all of their three Six Nations games to date, losing two while barely raising trees against Italy.
England struggled with the pressure after the World Cup final and Autumn Nations Cup victory
World-class teams not only need to be comfortable as favorites, they also need to thrive. They take their performance to another level when the pressure is on. What England has to do is learn to flourish as favorites.
Sir Alex Ferguson and Manchester United in their splendor were the favorites, Sir Chris Hoy and Sir Ben Ainslie never shied away from that tag. Sir Lewis Hamilton loves being the driver everyone wants to beat. You would never catch Serena Williams, Roger Federer, Rafa Nadal or Novak Djokovic admitting they might be underdogs. For all these sports giants, being a favorite is a huge weapon.
I hated being the underdog. It means you are not as good as the other team! It can be very motivating, but it is a card that you can only play occasionally in a long career.
The All Blacks, to their credit, have faced this throughout their history. Sometimes the pressure is on them – they had a string of poor performances in major World Cup matches – but for long periods of time, they’ve been galvanized and bolstered by being perennial favorites. I’d say their ability to convince themselves they were favorites got them more wins than the underdog routine.
England must learn to flourish as favorites and convince themselves that they can win
Claiming underdog wins is great, but it’s not a sustainable model. Look no further than Greece, which won Euro 2004 football.
England, with all its resources and talent, can only be underdogs for a short time.
Claiming great wins as favorites is the real art of becoming the best in the world.
That’s why Saturday is so interesting. Despite all my excitement and admiration about the development of France, this is a problem they also face on Saturday nights.
Make no bones about this, I think France is a favorite and that doesn’t happen often at Twickenham. How they deal with it will be fascinating. I listen carefully to head coach Fabien Galthie and assistant Shaun Edwards to see how they go about this. Embrace it or try to dispute underdog status?
High-flying France is a Saturday afternoon favorite – which is rare in Twickenham
Until now, everything has been a bonus to the new France steadily improving, bleeding their young guns, and reviving and re-educating some of their more experienced players.
The occasional setback is part of the learning process, but this is one competition that France and their media will feel they should win. It would certainly be a disappointment to lose tonight.
However, if they win – and get it right – it’s in full force for this championship and the 2023 World Cup. Back-to-back wins, as favorites, in Dublin and London would send a strong message. All the pressure is on France for the first time since Galthie, Edwards and manager Raphael Ibanez teamed up.