With 80 minutes against an unwavering Wales the prize next week, one of Europe’s oldest battles took place once again, as the French looked to ensure they were not knocked out of the World Cup by England for the third tournament in a row.
With both teams coming into the game with far from perfect build ups, even the most experienced commentators were struggling to call this one. With no real form between them and countless off-field distractions, it was England who started the brighter, threatening down one wing, then the other.
A stolen line-out 5 metres from the French line pushed the England back, but they seemed to be keeping their promise to hit the ground running. However this promise was swiftly broken.
With England initially appearing to be trying to be more disciplined they soon were back to old ways, Toby Flood penalised for not releasing at a tackle. Dimitri Yachvili dissected the posts with the penalty.
With Lewis Moody’s face again seemingly determined to expel blood in every match, the French started to put it through the hands, Foden denying Vincent Clerc in the corner, scragging him into touch.
Matt Stevens continued his struggle at scrum time from the Scotland game a week previous, conceding another penalty to allow Yachvilli to put another three points on the score, before conceding yet another one, this time for holding on in a tackle, with the same result not forthcoming thankfully.
Despite a positive start, France had the edge in the first quarter, the efforts of their senior squad members to reunite this disenfranchised team seemingly working. A well worked move down the left saw Clerc score, profiteering from gaps in the England defence. Parra again missed, but England found themselves 11-0 down with barely twenty minutes gone.
Again and again, England’s handling let them down. A daft offside tackle by Louis Deacon saw France given the chance to kick to the corner, Thierry Dusautoir bursting from the resultant maul to almost cross the line, before the ball was whipped wide and with Palisson showing good awareness to offload inside, meaning Medard just had to skip over from two metres. Yachvili continued to be charitable in his kicking, the gap widened to 16.
Two knock-outs against the men on the other side of the channel in both 2003 and 2007 had clearly annoyed the French and they were simply unrecognisable from the side that lost woefully to Tonga the previous weekend.
Yet again, England failed to make good field position count, with another handling error gifting the French possession. The mistakes were schoolboy at best, with England seemingly waiting for half-time to be told what to do by the school master while the watching audience winced with every French move that seemed to take them closer and closer.
A couple of neat offloads brought England to within a few metres of the French line with seconds of the half to go, but yet again, almost predictably, England made a handling error and gave the ball away. After 38 minutes we had at last some enterprise, but without the precision it was wasted. Half time came as a welcome respite from a frustrating first forty minutes by England.
An attacking line-out in the French 22 was England’s first opportunity after the break and, low and behold, they knocked on when mauling it towards the try line.
With 5 of 7 replacements being forwards, Courtney Lawes came on for Tom Croft who took a knock to the head a few minutes earlier. The messy play continued with England trying to play in the middle of the field, which the French were happy to let them do.
Alex Corbisero and Simon Shaw joined Lawes to attempt shore up the scrum, Stevens and Deacon making way. However the result was poor, France turning the scrum through 90 degrees at the first attempt.
France attacked the line hard with pace and support ready for the multitude of offloads they performed, something that kept the English defence on the back foot and scrambling for organisation.
Controversially (to only French coach Marc Levriemont) Francois Trinh-Duc replaced Yachvili allowing Parra to move to his natural position of scrum half.
Twenty five minutes to go and a quick tap penalty by Youngs took England to within metres of the line, quick hands seeing Foden find a gap and scamper over for a try! Wilkinson kicked the conversion to allow English fans everywhere to breathe again.
With just a nine point deficit to make up now, both sides seemed to grow taller as the battle intensified, an overthrown lineout being stolen by an (offside) French player five metres out set English hearts racing until the referee called play back with a blast of his whistle.
The game burst into life with Flood breaking the line twenty metres out, only for his basketball pass to Chris Ashton to be denied, the play jumping 70 metres up field in a stunning passage of play that saw the French almost break through before knocking on 8 metres out.
Moody and Cole left the field for Haskell and Stevens as the English tried to push down the field. Next up Banahan replaced Wilkinson and Wigglesworth, Youngs.
England now seemed intent on battering through the defence given the size of the men on the pitch, but yet again Flood tried to force the pass and the opportunity was snatched away. With possession in their own 22, England kept trying to run the ball and predictably gave away the ball ten metres from their own line.
Ten minutes to go and the French showed no urgency to keep the game going, making the most of any injury or reset scrum. They set up camp in front of England’s posts, the English powerless to fight too hard for the ball for fear of giving away a penalty. Instead it was a drop goal by Francois Trinh-Duc that nudged the gap to twelve with seven minutes remaining.
Yet again it was that man Mark Cueto subject to a Television Match Official decision, picking up a loose ball and rolling over the line in the arms of a French defender. After a bevy of replays, the try was given.
Flood sent the conversion wide meaning England need a converted try to bring themselves level, but there was barely three minutes to go.
With Tuilagi pushed into touch, the French took all the time in the world, keeping it in the forwards before generating a penalty in the final minute. As Thierry Dusautoir pointed at the posts, that was in effect it, Parra using every second of the regulation minute to line up the kick.
After an age it ricocheted off the post and bounced agonisingly over the deadball line, denying the possibility of the most miraculous of counter attacks and in the process sending England out of the World Cup and on the next plane home. The men in blue more than earned themselves a stay of execution, their Kiwi odessy given another unlikely week as they now have a semi-final against a dangerous Welsh side where they will likely be considered underdogs, such was the quality of the Welsh performance.
It will be up to the likes of Imanol Harinordoquy to continue to rally those around him in the face of the fractious relationship with the management to have a chance of beating the Welsh. Famed for ‘one big performance’ this was no doubt it for this World Cup. Whether they can stop this Jekyll and Hyde way of performing and do the same again I doubt, but as is always the case with the French, we will just have to see which French team gets off the bus (if at all).
The English did not deserve to win this and it was frustrating and angering to watch. The initial start of two minutes was quelled by the French finding the higher gear and staying in it for the rest of the first half. The second half brought urgency but more out of fear of failure than trying to win, but the lack of precision was a constant thorn in any attack with countless attempts brought to an end by England’s own mistakes.
Taking so long to get on the scoreboard meant they lacked momentum, failing to capitalise on visits to the 22 and failing to look for territory. There seemed to be a lack of direction, the game management of the half backs was not good enough, too many times trying to play from their own half with too many forwards mingling in the backline, slowing the ball down. Additionally, too many players could be seen flapping their arms complaining, which sums up their mind set. Rather than taking the game by the scruff of the neck, they were waiting for someone else to do it for them. And no one has won a World Cup by waiting.
Johnson will get a lot of stick for the Flood decision as it did not pay off. Tuilagi was England’s best player in attack and the sooner they can find a partner in the centres for him of his calibre, the better. However he is still young and still raw, and still has a lot to learn in terms of his responsibility for getting the ball to the back three.
Nerves no doubt played a part and several of these players will emerge better for the experience. The French team for all its changes was one of the most capped teams, cumulatively, the World Cup has seen. A large part of England’s cap count came from a handful of players.
So there we go, c’est la vie. A less than glorious exit to the French who will have loved beating us. The analysis of what went wrong will continue long into the night, but I would put it down to a lack of experience at the end of the day. A few key players underperformed, a few younger faces got caught in the headlights and we never really got going. With the exception of the Romania game we never really dazzled, and with the greatest respect, many of the players in that Romania team are Championship level players, at best.
This will hurt the players and hopefully they will learn from it. Many of the class of 2003 experienced a similar fate at the 1999 World Cup and it served to make them stronger, to give them some grit and steely determination. The class of 2007 were older and the bit part players of 2003 being given their chance by the retirement of those in front of them, but it was not a team that could be built on. This team is. There is enough youth in the core of the side for the majority of it to stay together until the next World Cup. The likes of Easter, Moody and Tindall will be gone but Tuilagi will only be 24, Ashton, 28. And don’t forget it is in England, which is going to be a bonus.
So today is a day for moping and sulking and rightly so. Our World Cup dream has ended too early in a fashion not becoming of a World Cup wining side. But tomorrow is a new day and hey, it’s only a few months to the Six Nations, and after today’s game a certain match in Paris just, got, interesting.
England (0) 12
- Tries: Foden, Cueto
- Cons: Wilkinson
France (16) 19
- Tries: Clerc, Medard
- Pens: Yachvili 2
- Drop-goal: Trinh-Duc
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