England 23 France 20
An utterly compelling and at times scintillating game of rugby, particularly in the first half, was settled in England’s favour by Maro Itoje’s late try. France’s Grand Slam ambitions were washed away under a wave of second half anxiety while Eddie Jones’ team rediscovered a bulldog spirit just in the nick of time to rescue a win.
France will be dogged by feelings of regret at the manner in which victory slipped away, principally because they abandoned the buccaneering style that caused England so many problems and largely replaced it with a more cautious approach after the interval.
In trying to balance inherent flair and ambition with the pragmatism they believed was required to win, a young team fell between the two identities. They will learn from it, a scary prospect for future opponents.
The closer France got to the winning line at Twickenham, the more inhibited the option taking or conversely at times the more careless or less judicious; take your pick. Ultimately they were let down by glitches in the basics of the game. Poor execution in kicking, ill-discipline and ropey game management insinuated its way into their patterns, pressure suffocating clarity of thought.
Reigning Six Nations champions England sensed the uncertainty, the nervousness and it fostered belief that they could rescue the win in the final 20-minutes of the match. Eddie Jones' team deserve huge credit for the manner in which they clawed back the momentum with an unrelenting, hard-nosed assault. France had occasional opportunities to wrest the initiative but crucially lacked the experience and maturity to doso.
Victory is parsed from the perspective of winners, so Jones is entitled to his post-match assertion that “we are still nowhere near our best. We have another week to put our best foot forward against Ireland and while we are disappointed we cannot defend our trophy, we want to finish the campaign with a good feeling about where we are going as a team.”
There is some justification to his comments. England’s creativity was compromised on several occasions by not sending enough players to the breakdown, where the French won a good handful of penalty turnovers, more often than not within 25-metres of the visitors’ line. The English are unlikely to repeat that oversight in Dublin next Saturday.
England played with a high tempo and a good attacking shape for large tranches of the match, using scrumhalf Ben Youngs, looping around Owen Farrell, as a primary distributor to the outside backs - he also made one or two excellent breaks - sending their backrow careering into the French midfield and positioning outhalf, George Ford in the outside channels as a less orthodox, second playmaker.
Ford appeared to lack his traditional confidence and certainly there were a couple of try-scoring opportunities that he wouldn't have let slip in his pomp. Anthony Watson was superb; Ireland have been forewarned. When England secured quick front foot ball, their power game caused the French huge problems, as it has done to Irish teams in recent seasons, and there was a nice variety to the points of attack.
This match reinforced that there are two ways to stymie England, at source in rucks, or getting into their backfield with an aggressive line speed in defence. Ireland do not possess France’s physical size to make it a fair contest in the collisions, so they’ll have to be more proactive in hunting down the big call carriers.
From an attacking perspective France got some joy on the edges but much of that was largely due to wonderful, individual skill sets. They also made some headway in and around the 10 channel, particularly through the work of the outstanding Gael Fickou.
The two tries were beauties, Teddy Thomas and Antoine Dupont combining for the first, the second a brilliant strike play from the lineout; this time the excellent Mathieu Jalibert and Damian Penaud fulfilled the defining roles.
England's first try originated with a clever line and break from the exceptional Tom Curry, the home side maintained a high tempo, using the full expanse of the pitch to probe, before Henry Slade spotted a mismatch and glided through a gap into the French 22. Ford's try scoring pass to Watson was a fitting reward for three minutes of rugby excellence.
Jalibert’s penalty on 49 minutes to push France out to a 20-13 lead gave the visitors every encouragement but the game became ragged, full of mistakes, lost shape and continuity. England dealt with it a little better. It took them until the 76th minute to find the solution - they butchered two glorious chances - Itoje finding a blade of grass with the ball.
Referee Andrew Brace, who facilitated the hugely entertaining tussle, initially ruled 'no try' but checked with the television match official Joy Neville. She was satisfied based on the images available to her that the England secondrow had grounded the ball and in those circumstances made the call to reverse the on-field decision. She saw it, she called it, without fear or favour.
England will benefit from the tone and content of this win, the upturn in form especially ill-timed from an Irish perspective.
Scoring sequence – 1 min: Dupont try, Jalibert conversion, 0-7; 9: Watson try, Farrell conversion, 7-7; 14: Farrell penalty, 10-7; 19: Farrell penalty, 13-7; 29: Jalibert penalty, 13-10; 32: Penaud try, Jalibert conversion, 13-17, Halftime: 13-17. 49: Jalibert penalty, 13-20; 53: Farrell penalty, 16-20; 76: Itoje try, Farrell conversion, 23-20.
England: M Malins; A Watson, H Slade, O Farrell (capt), J May; G Ford, B Youngs; M Vunipola, L Cowan-Dickie, K Sinckler; M Itoje, C Ewels; M Wilson, T Curry, B Vunipola. Replacements: E Genge for M Vunipola 63 mins; B Earl for Wilson 63 mins; Elliot Daly for Malins 63 mins; J George for Cowan-Dickie 71 mins; O Lawrence for Slade 73 mins; W Stuart for Sinkler D Robson for Youngs 75 mins; J Hill for Ewels 77 mins.
France: B Dulin; T Thomas, V Vakatawa, G Fickou, D Penaud; M Jalibert, A Dupont; C Baille, J Marchand, M Haouas; R Taofifenua, P Willemse; D Cretin, C Ollivon (capt), G Alldritt. Replacements: D Aldegheri for Haouas 59 mins; C Cazeaux for Taofifenua 59 mins; J-B Gros for Baille 67 mins; C Chat for Marchand 71 mins; C Woki for Cretin 71 mins.
Referee: A Brace (Ireland).