With France on course for a Grand Slam, England travelled to Paris looking to make amends for a narrow loss against Wales in the last round.
With England having made steady progress this tournament, the trip to Paris had been highlighted as the most difficult challenge for Stuart Lancaster’s men in this year’s Six Nations. England started brightly with a break by Lee Dickson, much like Chris Ashton was making last year off the inside shoulder, but there wasn’t the support and the move broke down. An early high, wide and short drop goal from Beauxis when nothing was on gave an indication of what we could expect from the French half backs.
The sight of Dylan Hartley popping up at the first scrum would have worried England scrum coach Graham Rowntree and amissed penalty kick quickly followed by a conceded penalty on the England try line did nothing for English nerves.
Nonetheless, it was England who opened the scoring, first with Tuilagi bursting through a disorganised defence after Farrell scooped up a loose ball and popped neatly to Dickson, who sent the centre away to score in the corner. Minutes later and Foden scored after another break by Ben Morgan, the dynamic number 8 offloading out of the back of the hand to the supporting full back who just scrambled over for his fourth try in four games against the French. Farrell converted both but the tries were interspersed with a penalty from Beauxis, annoyingly straight after the first restart.
With the score at 14-3, Mouritz Botha needed an on pitch consultation with the physio a couple of times as the French tackling was typically ferocious.
It was then France’s turn to crumble at the scrum and the home side seemed to be struggling to deal with the concept of an England side playing with intelligence in attack. Farrell rattled the post with a penalty and France scrambled the ball away as England continued to spend time in the French half.
A cornered France though is a dangerous France, and an inevitable break by Poitrenaud meant the Parisians found their voice, only for a turnover to waste the chance.
A bomb into 22 was dealt with by Foden, but when Croft and Ashton took exception to the tackle by Rougerie a split second after the mark had been called, referee Allain Rolland had no hesitancy in reversing the call and giving France the penalty, which Dupuy kicked. Beauxis chipped away at the lead with another penalty on the cusp of the break, taking to gap to only five points at 9-14.
The first points of the second half came from the boot of Farrell, kicking a penalty after Wesley Fofana was harshly adjudged to have made a deliberate knock on. The volume of the French crowd as he lined it up suggested the Parisians were becoming agitated
Seemingly keen to even things up, Allain Rolland sent Sharples to the sin bin for another deliberate knock on that was barely any worse than Fofana’s, if not less. The Irishman was again making himself centre of attention with the cards in his pocket. Welsh fans will undoubtedly sympathise.
Instantly in the gap left by Sharples, Fofana broke through and only through the covering tackle of Dan Cole was the knock on forced to cease the attack.
England were unsurprisingly unfussed to have set-piece after set-piece reset to run the sin bin clock down, and crucially made it through the ten minutes with the scores unchanged, though a forward pass to Fofana in a good position certainly helped.
France disrupted an English scrum and replacement Morgan Parra bisected the posts to bring the score to 12-17. Beauxis added another three from half way after Foden got turned in the tackle, and the margin was down to two points with twelve minutes to go.
The response from England was through Croft, the flanker showing his supremely athletic abilities to throw the dummy to find a gap between Harinoridquay and Rougerie to beat the full back to score the try of the game. Farrell squeezed the conversion over to take the lead back up to nine points.
Inevitably France came charging back and Phil Dowson got himself knocked out for his troubles when swiping the bobbling ball on his own line from Fofana, before Tom Croft accidentally stood on his face when defending the loose ball.
With Dowson taken off by the doctor, Hooker Rob Webber was left to defend the blindside of the scrum. France inevitably exploited this imbalance in the scrum and Fofana found half a metre of space in the corner. Parra hit an excellent conversion to take the score to 22-24.
With the urgency of the situation finally dawning on the French, Rougerie chipped and collected to get the crowd on their feet as the French surged up field. With the ball twenty metres out, the French manoeuvred the ball to replacement Trinh-Duc for the drop goal. England held its breath as the ball took an age to eventually fall just under the cross bar. A knock on from the drop pout gave England the scrum and Farrell booted the ball out to the cheers of the travelling fans.
The win by England all but mathematically gave Wales the winner’s trophy, barring a storming win next weekend over Ireland by England, and an equally horrific loss by Wales against France. The Welsh however have Grand-er ambitions.
Stat fans will appreciate the fact France hadn’t lost at home for ten games and this was the first time England have won three games away from home in a Six Nations, figures not to be sniffed at.
England will be understandably delighted to have won this game, and it was a result that was deserved, just. The defence and set-piece of the English have not been the issues this Six Nations, it has been the ability to finish chances. Two tries from counter attacks and one moment of magic from Croft showed England were becoming capable and it was simply a matter of time before it started to happen. France just happened to be the unlucky recipients.
Yet again it was a big team effort, with the efforts of Croft, Morgan, Tuilagi and Dickson being most noticable. Without wishing to sound repetitive, Farrell had another great game at ten, nothing flashy but making good decisions and kicking most of his kicks.
The French will be frustrated by a performance that at times seemed nervous, confused and hesitant. Only when the clock was running out and the crowd were getting anxious did they seem to play with a vigour that befitted a side that played in a World Cup Final not that long ago. The selection of Beauxis and Dupuy at half back was a selection gamble that didn’t come off.
Despite that though, France could have won it, especially if Beauxis had been on the field for a drop goal, but after losing so narrowly to Wales in the last round, it was good to see England closing out a game in the final moments, even if it was helped by the erring boot of Trinh-Duc.
When France fancy it, they could score tries for fun, several simple forward passes denying good try scoring opportunities in this match. Fofana continues to be the rising star of this France squad, but otherwise it remains the team from the trip to New Zealand.
England are a stark contrast. Led by Robshaw in only his fifth cap, they played like an England side that had been together much longer. There seems genuine camaraderie in the England camp, and the naivety of test rugby is being cancelled out by the will to work for each other. Phil Dowson earns the ‘award for lack of awareness of personal safety’ after getting himself knocked unconscious when denying the try.
The result serves as yet another solid argument for the case of Stuart Lancaster. England could have beaten Wales, have beaten France away and now have a very good chance of beating Ireland at home next week if they perform like this again.
But for a missed kick and a TMO decision against Wales they would be within one win of a Grand Slam, a completely ridiculous scenario when you consider the situation the England camp is currently in, where most were strangers 8 weeks ago.
By beating France, Lancaster in a sensible world should have secured the role full time. A win against Ireland would iron plate the suggestion even further. But even success against the Irish may not be enough for the RFU as they are seemingly obsessed with experience and oblivious to the talents and results on show.
I still believe Mallet is likely to become involved at some point and I still believe Lancaster should be retained in the set-up. These players are Lancaster’s players and a new coach would feel like starting again, even after just five rounds of Six Nations action. But the balance is shifting as to which man of these two will be a gamble to go with.
With the tournament coming to a close next weekend, Wales will be hoping France are not out for vengeance against whoever crosses their path, which has happened many times before.
England meanwhile will be buoyed by another performance that demonstrates that real progress is being made, with the coaching set-up developing along with the players. Ireland love to upset an English party and yet again we go into the final weekend with another fascinating set of fixtures to look forward to.
FRANCE (9) 22
Tries: Fofana Cons: Parra Pens: Beauxis 3, Dupuy, Parra
ENGLAND (14) 24
Tries: Tuilagi, Foden, Croft Cons: Farrell 2 Pens: Farrell
England: Ben Foden; Chris Ashton, Manu Tuilagi, Brad Barritt, Charlie Sharples; Owen Farrell, Lee Dickson; Alex Corbisiero, Dylan Hartley, Dan Cole; Mouritz Botha, Geoff Parling; Tom Croft, Chris Robshaw (captain), Ben Morgan.
Replacements: Rob Webber, Matt Stevens, Tom Palmer, Phil Dowson, Ben Youngs, Charlie Hodgson, Mike Brown.
France: Clement Poitrenaud; Vincent Clerc, Aurelien Rougerie, Wesley Fofana, Julien Malzieu; Lionel Beauxis, Julien Dupuy; Jean-Baptiste Poux, Dimitri Szarzewski, Nicolas Mas, Pascal Pape, Yoann Maestri, Thierry Dusautoir (captain), Julien Bonnaire, Imanol Harinordoquy.
Replacements: William Servat, Vincent Debaty, Lionel Nallet, Louis Picamoles, Francois Trinh-Duc, Morgan Parra, Maxime Mermoz.