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England architects of own downfall

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Pascal Pape of France celebrates victory during the RBS Six Nations match between France and England

Pascal Pape of France celebrates victory during the RBS Six Nations match between France and England

David Rogers/Getty Images

Billy Vunipola of England closes down Jules Plisson of France

Billy Vunipola of England closes down Jules Plisson of France

David Rogers/Getty Images

Gael Fickou of France celebrates scoring a try

Gael Fickou of France celebrates scoring a try

David Rogers/Getty Images

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Pascal Pape of France celebrates victory during the RBS Six Nations match between France and England

If this had been a World Cup quarter-final, it would be over for England. If this were a pool match in next year's tournament against either Wales or Australia, a grievous blow would have been dealt to English prospects.

There are no prizes on offer for style or spirit. The scoreboard goes with you to the sporting grave.

New Zealand do not lose many in such circumstances. England have now done it twice in succession, first against the All Blacks and now trumped by a French side that somehow managed to roll back the stone and rise from the dead. England were complicit in the act of resurrection.

Too often players take refuge in the mantra that it is all about performance, believing that if that little matter is tended to then the result will look after itself. It is an insidious proposition, worming its way into the subconscious.

Well, England did perform in Paris, they did show splendid character to come off the canvas after two early knock-downs, they did play with far more attacking vim and tempo than France, and yet they lost.

DARING

Of course there was plenty to admire in England's display: in the power and industry of No 8, Billy Vunipola, in the dash and daring of scrum-half Danny Care and in the bracing breakdown work of the forwards.

The new boys, too, try-scoring centre Luther Burrell and wing Jack Nowell (after his first-minute kick-off blooper) acquitted themselves well. Mike Brown at full-back and first try in 22 Tests – big tick, too. But enough of the praise. Scoreboard, scoreboard, scoreboard.

Yes, England had the mark of a decent side in many areas. They showed in their interactive attack, with forwards and backs meshing, that they had managed the tricky task of translating their training ground routines into match situations. Yet when it came to nailing it, England fluffed their lines.

Head coach Stuart Lancaster spoke of getting "little moments" right. He is correct but only if the phrase "big consequences" is appended to it.

Three months ago, England lost three second-half line-outs against the Kiwis. Here, they overthrew a crucial line-out. Then they stuffed up a backs move. Then they gave away a penalty at a scrum. France kicked the goal.

Three points were flagrantly wasted just before half-time by playing through a penalty advantage. Factor in, too, the delicate matter of substitutions, the scourge of the age.

Why was Care replaced? Concerns over fitness after injury, the form of Lee Dickson – there is always a certain rationale that can be applied. Better still if those options were curtailed.

Ben Morgan did raise a gallop when coming on for Vunipola, Tom Youngs did romp and bustle, although he did bomb that line-out, but you were still left with the feeling that England lost shape and forcefulness in that closing quarter

England have had only one defeat in each of the two Six Nations championships since Lancaster took over. It would be an enormous setback to this generation if they were to fall into debit against those standards. That is why in the midst of a dumbfounded dressing room that Wales's experience of last season was immediately latched on to. The defending champions had a sobering opening-day defeat in Cardiff in 2013 yet finished the tournament with hosannas ringing in their ears. Redemption can be claimed. Scotland at Murrayfield in five days' time assumes an enormous significance.

England reject the notion that there is a residual issue with their ability to see the job through.

"We have won a lot more games than we have lost so I do not think it is a trend," said Lancaster, who has to run the rule over injuries, primarily wing Jonny May who has a broken nose and is out of consideration. It was a calamity to lose May so early. His pace was missed, so too his positioning in defence. Lock Courtney Lawes needs to have his cheekbone checked.

England did not have the rub of the green but such things even themselves out. The ball did twice bounce fortuitously for France, both tries from wing Yoann Huget, coming courtesy of a ricochet and a chip kick that fell into his hands. The first score came after 31 seconds, England having made a pig's ear of the kick-off. The second was triggered by England losing the ball in contact up-field.

England had to come from so far back, 16-3, that it must add a strain. Even so, they looked in better condition than France. Brown's try just before half-time owed much to his innate strength and Care's alacrity. Burrell's try eight minutes into the second half was created by Vunipola and rounded off splendidly.

England made numerous line-breaks. They created chances, Care just coming up short and then not getting the bounce when chasing a ball that frustratingly eluded him. On such margins will England be judged. That is the fickle nature of the beast.

It took a last rage against the dying of the light for France to triumph and for that alone they are to be saluted. We may also just have witnessed the era dawning of a superstar. Gael Fickou is only 19 years old and had only been on the field for three minutes when opportunity beckoned. He took the chance brilliantly. It was a classic score, evoking France of old. But they should never have been allowed such a respite. England had been architects of their own downfall.

(© Daily Telegraph, London)

France – B Dulin; Y Huget, M Bastareaud, W Fofana, M Medard; J Plisson, J-M Doussain; T Domingo, B Kayser, N Mas, A Flanquart, P Pape (capt), Y Nyanga, B le Roux, L Picamoles.

Reps: A Burban for Le Roux h-t; D Szarzewski for Kayser 43; Y Maestri for Flanquart 43; Y Forestrier for Domingo 48; R Slimani for Mas 48; M Machenaud for Doussain 56; D Chouly for Picamoles 65; G Fickou for Bastareaud 74.

England – M Brown; J Nowell, L Burrell, W Twelvetrees, J May; O Farrell, D Care; J Marler, D Hartley, D Cole, J Launchbury, C Lawes, T Wood, C Robshaw (capt), B Vunipola.

Reps: A Goode for May 7; M Vunipola for Marler 51; T Youngs for Hartley 57; L Dickson for Care 60; B Barritt for Nowell 65; B Morgan for B Vunipola 65; D Attwood for Lawes 67.

Referee – N Owens (Wales).

Irish Independent