Monday 23 October 2017

French resistance falls flat as England grind out Grand Slam title

France 21 England 31

England's Dylan Hartley, Danny Care, James Haskell, Mike Brown and Ben Youngs with the RBS 6 Nations trophy. Photo: Andrew Matthews/PA Wire
England's Dylan Hartley, Danny Care, James Haskell, Mike Brown and Ben Youngs with the RBS 6 Nations trophy. Photo: Andrew Matthews/PA Wire
England's Dylan Hartley and James Haskell with the RBS 6 Nations Trophy. Photo: Andrew Matthews/PA Wire
England's George Kruis and teammates celebrate winning the Six Nations and the Grand Slam. Photo: Henry Browne/Action Images via Reuters
England's Billy Vunipola in action with France's Maxime Machenaud. Photo: Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters

Steve James

The wait is over. England have won the Grand Slam for the first time since 2003. In a tense, compelling encounter, with France playing their finest rugby of the tournament by far, England outscored their opponents by three tries to none, but, mainly because they conceded so many penalties, were never quite able to shake off the French, meaning some heart-stopping moments.

But, with lock George Kruis again outstanding in a team performance of considerable passion and physicality and Owen Farrell a rock as a kicker, they deserved the victory and the clean sweep.

These things are not achieved by fluke. They have been the best side in the championship and it is an achievement that should be celebrated long and hard.

France had taken an early lead through a penalty from Maxime Machenaud after Maro Itoje had been penalised, but England responded almost immediately with a penalty.

England suddenly had a great opportunity after Chris Robshaw had made good initial ground from a driving line-out, but then so might France had the splendidly dangerous Virimi Vakatawa found Fickou outside him after a burst from Scott Spedding. It was frantic but wonderfully entertaining stuff.

And it soon became even more entertaining as Care had another opportunity. After Jonathan Joseph had set up a ruck in midfield, Care spotted that there were no French guards in his way and set off, only having to brush off prop Jefferson Poirot as he did so. He screeched to the line for a superb score.

Farrell converted. It was 10-3 to England. And to worsen matters for France, their fly half, Francois Trinh-Duc, was helped off. They did, though, hit back with a penalty from Machenaud, a tricky kick made to look easy from out on the right.

And France then burst away from their own line, freeing Spedding on the right, who might have been better served keeping the ball in hand when he reached England's 22 rather than kicking ahead.

England made no such mistake shortly afterwards when they went through a mountain of phases before Dan Cole crashed over, even though the French crowd tried to convince referee Nigel Owens that Mako Vunipola had obstructed the French defence. Farrell converted and it was 17-6.

France responded with another penalty for Machenaud after James Haskell was pinged for holding on, but then had to do an awful lot of defending as England pressed hard for a third try. But defend well they did, and though Kruis initially stole a line-out in his own 22, France still had another penalty chance that Machenaud duly kicked. It was 17-12.

England made a change at half-time, with Joe Marler replacing Mako Vunipola at loosehead prop. But it was France who began the second half the brighter, with Vakatawa breaking down the left, going past Care and it was only a brilliant tackle from Jack Nowell that stopped him.

France still had a penalty, though, and Machenaud kicked it. It was 17-15, and now, strangely, England replaced Care with Youngs. They were rewarded with a penalty immediately that Farrell kicked. England led 20-15.

Now it was France's turn to attack through Maxime Mermoz and Fickou, and yet another penalty ensued. Machenaud kicked it and we stood at 20-18. It was getting very nervy, as Ford attempted a dropped goal from poor ball but scuffed it quite badly.

There were mistakes and turnovers galore now, with Kruis pinching another line-out, Farrell making a fine turnover, but neither side able to take the game by the scruff of the neck.

And then who did that? Billy Vunipola, that's who. He had been well shackled up until now but when he burst from a scrummage and made his most significant yards of the match, France simply could not cope.

Youngs was following up and picked up to run left. From there he cleverly grubbered for Watson to collect and score England's third try in the corner. It was 25-18. Typically, though, England could not make it count fully, with Farrell missing the conversion and then France immediately receiving a penalty that Machenaud kicked. 25-21 it was.

And next we had the sight of the England captain Dylan Hartley lying prone having been knocked out in a collision with Uini Atonio's knee. A stretcher was immediately summoned. Farrell took over as captain and when his side were awarded a penalty near halfway he opted for the posts. And he kicked it easily. It was a magnificent kick in fact.

France kept coming, however, and England still had a lot of defending to do. But when Xavier Chiocci was sent to the sin-bin, Farrell kicked another penalty to make it 31-21, and that was it.

Scorers - France: Machenaud 7 pens. England: Care, Cole, Watson try each; Farrell 4 pens, 2 cons.

France: Spedding, Fofana, Fickou, Mermoz, Vakatawa, Trinh-Duc, Machenaud; Poirot, Guirado, Slimani, Flanquart, Maestri, Chouly, Le Roux, Goujon. Replacements: Chat for Guirado (66), Atonio for Poirot (57), Chiocci for Slimani (57), Jedrasiak for Flanquart (57), Lauret for Goujon (69), Bezy for Machenaud (75), Plisson for Trinh-Duc (13), Medard for Mermoz (69).

England: Brown, Watson, Joseph, Farrell, Nowell, Ford, Care; M Vunipola, Hartley, Cole, Itoje, Kruis, Robshaw, Haskell, B Vunipola. Replacements: Cowan-Dickie for Hartley (67), Marler for M Vunipola (41), Clifford for Robshaw (75), Youngs for Care (43).

Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales)

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