England find extra gear to test French nerves
To France, a Grand Slam, their fifth in 13 years but first since 2004, -- oh, and a strong dose of sedatives to calm their shot nerves. To England, who came up so fast on the rails when they'd looked out of it at half time, a simple question: why the hell couldn't you play like this for the entire season?
French nerves, already apparent early on when England scored a wonder try out of nowhere, gradually became increasingly frayed. It was the old story -- they were struggling to put away Les Rosbifs. From a season of shambles and a first half in which their technical indiscipline was crass, England staged such a comeback that France spent most of the last 10 minutes trying to kill the game with a series of forward drives.
It wasn't quite the all-singing, dancing celebration of a Grand Slam but then, that's the English for you; completely unpredictable to the last. Where they dredged a convincing last 40 minutes from in which they nearly put the French to the sword several times, no one knows. But at least it is likely to offer Martin Johnson and his pressurised coaches some breathing space.
France couldn't score a try, so well organised was England's defence. But by the end they were mighty relieved not to have conceded more than one to their old foes. Had wing Mark Cueto turned left instead of right into trouble in an England attack with minutes left, it could have been so different.
The French began to wobble when Jonny Wilkinson, a 61st minute replacement for Toby Flood, put over an amazing 48 metre penalty from wide out. The kick went straight to where it hurts most and the French looked stunned. Suddenly, the ghosts of Sydney 2003 and Paris 2007 were stirring. But in the end, it was not quite enough.
Heavy rain, which had held off all day, fell no sooner than the match had started. England just had time to score an astonishingly creative try, by their mundane standards, before the heavens opened.
In days of yore, when England had a pack of forwards to terrify anyone in the world, like at the 2003 World Cup, such a downpour would have been manna from heaven. But such days are long gone and the difficulties England began to experience at the set scrums became the feature of the first 40 minutes.
Tight-head prop Dan Cole was constantly penalised by New Zealand referee Bryce Lawrence for collapsing scrums. It was true that Cole was finding life extremely tough against a powerful, wily French front row. But twice the shrewd French won penalties when they refused to take the engagement. Such subtleties were beyond the compass of Mr Lawrence.
Besides, England tried to play far too much football on the wet, slippery pitch. They had enough ball and should have kicked deep for territory, playing off line-outs deep in the French half. Instead, they tried to drive the ball on, off a series of rucks and mauls. At times, they went through seven or eight phases and made barely five metres.
Toby Flood at least stood flatter than Wilkinson had done, but Lewis Moody and Joe Worsley would never see the point of using a key to unlock a door when they can smash through it. This side doesn't really do subtlety.
Yet England's try after just five minutes was a gem. Even by then, Francois Trinh-Duc had dropped a goal for France from an early attack but England struck back. Quality second-phase ball was recycled at speed down the right and slick handling moved the ball quickly left. New cap Chris Ashton was in the line to free his Northampton club colleague Ben Foden who took the pass at pace and rounded a flailing defender to dive over in the corner. Flood's conversion was immaculate and England led 7-3. The French public looked dumbfounded at such finesse from Les Rosbifs.
But England's difficulties up front then became critical. Parra landed penalty goals after 21, 24 and 38 minutes to ease the French to a 12-7 halftime lead. The first was against Riki Flutey for not staying on his feet at the breakdown; the last two against Cole for collapsing. His difficulties were solved by his own coach at half time -- he was withdrawn, together with hooker Dylan Hartley who had thrown in poorly.
Morgan Parra tried to keep his men going forward as much as possible but from nowhere, England suddenly found an extra gear. Foden and Ashton offered a real cutting edge and England looked much the more dangerous in the last half hour. Alas for them, this time they came up agonisingly short, just as France had done at the World Cup semi-finals of 2003 and 2007 against their great rivals.
Scorers -- France: Parra 3 pen, Trinh-Duc drop goal. England: Foden try, Wilkinson pen, Flood con,
France: C Poitrenaud; M Andreu (J Malzieu 73), M Bastareaud (D Marty 49), Y Jauzion, A Palisson; F Trinh-Duc, M Parra; T Domingo (J-B Poux 54), W Servat (D Szarzewski 52), N Mas, L Nallet, J Pierre (S Chabal 58), T Dusautoir (capt), J. Bonnaire (A Lapandry 60), I Harinordoquy.
England: B Foden; M Cueto, M Tindall (M Tait 53), R Flutey (J Wilkinson 61), C Ashton; T Flood, D Care; T Payne (D Cole 63), D. Hartley (S Thompson 40), D Cole (D Wilson 40), S Shaw (T Palmer 18), L Deacon, J Worsley (J Haskell 63), L Moody (capt), N Easter.
Referee: B Lawrence (New Zealand)