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Saturday 19 April 2014

Chariot rolls on despite French show of defiance

ENGLAND 23 FRANCE 13

England's Manu Tuilagi goes over the line to score his try against France at Twickenham

The turning point in Wales's Grand Slam campaign last season came at Twickenham when they prevailed in a tight game without coming anywhere near their best. If England go on to record their first clean sweep since 2003, they will look back at this success, against the team propping up the Six Nations, as an example of how far resolution and bloody-mindedness can go for a side when it is outplayed in key areas.

The turning point in Wales's Grand Slam campaign last season came at Twickenham when they prevailed in a tight game without coming anywhere near their best. If England go on to record their first clean sweep since 2003, they will look back at this success, against the team propping up the Six Nations, as an example of how far resolution and bloody-mindedness can go for a side when it is outplayed in key areas.

France were the more effective team for the opening 55 minutes but as soon as they started using their bench they lost their potency and shape, while England improved with every change they made. The home side's one concern was a thigh injury to Owen Farrell, 18 minutes from the end, that forced him to leave the field.

France, who had gone five successive matches in the Six Nations without a victory, started with the purpose and energy they had lacked in the opening two rounds. They targeted the scrum and breakdown and looked to unsettle England out-half Farrell, who in his short international career has been a model of imperturbability.

If Farrell's passing was not as precise as it had been against Scotland on the opening weekend, his goal-kicking remained metronomic. He kicked three out of three penalties in the first 34 minutes, not enough to give his side the lead. France imposed themselves on the game immediately, winning turnovers, getting the ball away quickly, running from deep and offloading. They were aggressive up front, but the referee, Craig Joubert, kept awarding free-kicks for early engagements, disfiguring the contest at the scrum.

England took time to acclimatise to the sustained ferocity of France's play. They initially struggled to put phases together – undone by Thierry Dusautoir and Yannick Nyanga at the breakdown – Ben Youngs was indecisive at times and tackles were missed.

Mathieu Bastareaud and Manu Tuilagi thundered into each other at times, Tuilagi requiring his head to be bandaged after one confrontation, but he provided the highlight of the opening half for England when he stepped his way into the France 22, on course to score under the posts before Morgan Parra stopped him with a copybook tackle.

The player who caused England most concern was Wesley Fofana, back in the centre after a stint in exile on the wing. He had given a few warnings before receiving the ball just inside the England half on 29 minutes. Bastareaud's run from deep prompted a misalignment in England's defence: Courtney Lawes missed Fofana who then easily rode Chris Ashton's high challenge. His quick feet had taken him into space and he saw off Youngs's challenge and Ashton's attempted ankle tap to reach the line for the opening try.

Farrell's third penalty reduced France's interval lead to 10-9. Parra had a chance from near halfway with the last kick of the half, but could not find the distance and was guilty of a more grievous miss two minutes after the restart when another dominant scrum resulted in a penalty for France, 40 metres out.

When Maestri collapsed a maul on 48 minutes, Farrell put England ahead and the response of the France coach, Philippe Saint-Andre, was immediate, taking off Francois Trinh-Duc and bringing on Frederic Michalak.

Michalak had only just come on when England were awarded a free-kick in their own half and Farrell sent the ball high into the night. Yoann Huget made a hash of the catch and, as the ball rolled on the ground, Tom Wood kicked it on to the legs of the replacement prop Mako Vunipola, who wasn't penalised despite being offside. The ricochet fell for Tuilagi, 35 metres from the France line, and the centre had the pace to ensure Parra could not get near enough to make a tackle.

And then something unusual happened: Farrell missed the conversion from wide on the left – and, five minutes later, he failed from just inside the France half, tweaking a thigh muscle in the process and leaving the field of play.

Michalak had by then reduced the deficit to four points after James Haskell was off-side from a kick, but as Saint-Andre made his changes, so France reverted to the team that bumbled and fumbled in their opening two matches. In contrast, Vunipola, Tom Youngs, Haskell and Danny Care helping to make the home side more cohesive.

England dominated the final quarter. Toby Flood restored his side's seven-point lead with a 40-metre penalty after Bastareaud had failed to roll away after a tackle. The centre was immediately hauled off and the first contribution of his replacement, Florian Fritz, was to give away a penalty at a breakdown that Flood turned into three points, sealing a victory that was not as comfortable as the margin suggested, even if they survived a late yellow card for Dan Cole without looking a player short.

Observer

Scorers – England: M Tuilagi try; O Farrell 4 pens, T Flood 2 pens. France: W Fofana try; M Parra con, pen, F Michalak pen.

England: A Goode; C Ashton, M Tuilagi, B Barritt, M Brown; O Farrell (T Flood 61), B Youngs (D Care 58); J Marler (M Vunipola 51), D Hartley (T Youngs 51), D Cole; J Launchbury, G Parling; C Lawes (J Haskell 51), C Robshaw, T Wood.

England: Y Huget; V Clerc, M Bastareaud (F Fritz 73), W Fofana, B Fall; F Trinh-Duc (F Michalak 52), M Parra (M Machenaud 66); T Domingo (V Debaty 55), B Kayser (D Szarzewski 55), N Mas (J Suta 64); C Samson (L Ducalcon 64), Y Maestri; Y Nyanga Kabasele (A Claassen 68), T Dusautoir, L Picamoles.

Referee: C Joubert (RSA)

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