England, fired by the boot of Jonny Wilkinson, dashed French hopes of a Six Nations grand slam with a 24-13 win over France at the Stade de France in Paris on Saturday.
It was England’s first away win over France in the Six Nations since 2000, and left unbeaten Wales as the only side in European rugby’s premier tournament now capable of claiming the grand slam.
England’s win was fired by a gritty defensive display and 14 points from Wilkinson along with an opportunist try by winger Paul Sackey and a late try from debutant scrumhalf Richard Wigglesworth.
”The players were under no illusions that they had to perform,” said England coach Brian Ashton, whose side had been beaten by Wales and then edged Italy in their first two games. ”We needed to put in a full 80-minute performance after really only playing two half games.”
England number eight Nick Easter, the man of the match, said the team had been stung by recent criticisms.
”We were really fired up for this game,” he admitted. ”We were conscious of the need for a big game. We were looking to go forward because we were disappointed with out first two performances. We came back to a ground which we like and did the job. It’s a massive springboard for the rest of the championship.”
In their first meeting since October’s World Cup semifinal won 14-9 by England, the home side scored their only try through captain Lionel Nallet, with Morgan Parra and Dimitri Yachvili hitting a penalty apiece and Damien Traille a conversion.
”We are frustrated and there’s a lot of disappointment,” admitted France coach Marc Lievremont. ”We lost in the World Cup semifinal in the same way. We lost points quickly and after they defended well.”
France, who boasted a trio of relatively untested youngsters in the pivotal number-eight and half-back positions, showed their intent in the opening salvoes, running everything and refusing to kick out of their own 22m area.
But the high-risk strategy floundered in the fourth minute when England centre Jamie Noon, who does not play a blitz defence for his club Newcastle, came charging out of the line to take Cedric Heymans man-and-ball with the France full-back just outside his 22.
Heymans spilt the ball; Sackey raced through unmarked and gathered his own grubber to touch down.
Wilkinson hit the extras and then added a simple 14th-minute penalty after Pascal Pape was penalised for refusing to roll away from a tackle.
France finally got on the scoreboard in the 26th minute, Nallet being driven over from short range for a try — just desserts for some great build-up play that went through a succession of phases. Traille, who had earlier missed a tricky penalty, was successful with the conversion.
Nallet was at fault, however, just minutes later when he needlessly entered a ruck from the side to hand the faultless Wilkinson an effort at goal the sharpshooter did not spurn. Wilkinson was then on hand to produce a fine covering tackle on Heymans at full flight.
France went into half-time 13-7 down when Traille missed a shot at goal after a late tackle.
It was not a game for the purist, with the decision by both sides to force a high-risk running game from all over the park leading to a litany of handling errors amid myriad technical offences as defence won out.
Traille was relieved of kicking duties in the second half and scrumhalf Morgan Parra (19) banged over a penalty after Mark Regan hit out at Lionel Faure in a ruck.
With the French pack under pressure and penalised for petty mistakes twice within minutes, Wilkinson had a chance to open up a nine-point lead for England but skewed both attempts at goal.
He did, however, nail a drop goal after Lesley Vainikolo had opened up the French midfield, and a 66th-minute penalty after the French scrum had again collapsed.
Replacement scrumhalf Yachvili kicked a late penalty for the French, but their tactical naivety ensured England’s territorial domination, which was borne out when Wigglesworth crossed for a try in the final minute. — Sapa-AFP