Friday 25 May 2018

England fail miserably in title defence

France 22 England 16

France celebrate at the final whistle after securing victory over England in Stade de France. Photo: PA
France celebrate at the final whistle after securing victory over England in Stade de France. Photo: PA

Paul Rees

England should seek sponsorship from the RAC. Their title challenge broke down in the French capital, their chariot not so much swinging low as missing a wheel and a couple of cylinders.

Eddie Jones' side had to win and score four tries to take the Six Nations title race into the final weekend. They also had to dent Ireland's vastly superior points difference, but after a first-half largely notable for the mistakes of both sides and the persistence of the referee's whistle, they were drawing a kicking contest 9-9, desperately seeking inspiration.

France's fly-half Francois Trinh-Duc (R) runs to evade England's centre Owen Farrell (L). Photo: Getty Images
France's fly-half Francois Trinh-Duc (R) runs to evade England's centre Owen Farrell (L). Photo: Getty Images

England were without their captain Dylan Hartley and if his replacement Jamie George led the tackle count at the break with 13, the former champions lacked direction and, at times, purpose. The earlier rain had given way to the balm of Paris in the springtime and if both teams took up the invitation to move the ball, they were both lacking in the fundamentals.

France struggled in the set-pieces. They lost their first three line-out throws and their tight-head prop Rabah Slimani was twice penalised for taking down a scrum. The look of disbelief on his face the first time he was called by the referee Jaco Peyper was replaced by an expression of weary resignation the next time, matching the understated nature of the game.

England's weakness was, again, the breakdown when they were in possession. Too often they were more concerned with setting up the next move than delivering the ball and conceded penalties after being outnumbered.

England were 6-0 ahead after 21 minutes, Owen Farrell's early penalty supplemented by one from Elliott Daly a few metres inside England's half. However, not even the interval team-talk refreshed them because within three minutes of the restart, Mako Vunipola was tackled by Mathieu Bastareaud in France's 22 and gave away a penalty for holding on, with the support too slow to reach him.

France's centre Mathieu Bastareaud (C) is tackled. Photo: Getty Images
France's centre Mathieu Bastareaud (C) is tackled. Photo: Getty Images

Another breakdown penalty later, and an unguarded ruck that saw the France captain Guilhem Guirado award himself the freedom of the ground, and the home side took the lead for the first time.

Peyper was already playing advantage for another offence after a tackle when François Trinh-Duc chipped to the left-hand corner where Rémy Grosso tapped the ball back. It landed in the arms of Benjamin Fall, who had moved to full-back at the start of the second-half in place of Hugo Bonneval.

He seemed certain to score only for Anthony Watson, another wing at 15, to fell him with a high tackle. Peyper reviewed the incident and sent Watson to the sin-bin before awarding a penalty try that put France 16-9 ahead. They should have extended their advantage immediately when Grosso skipped out of Danny Care's tackle to prompt a counter-attack that saw Gaël Fickou tackled just short of the line and Maxime Machenaud held up over it. France had not started like a team expecting to win, but the longer the match was played at a pace they were comfortable with, the more they grew into it.

Three Machenaud penalties, the last for a high tackle on Fall by Maro Itoje, had taken them into the interval level. Farrell had earlier made it 9-3 but the initial failure to find their way over France's line meant that England had scored one try in three hours. The early loss of the number eight Nathan Hughes with a knee injury hardly explained their impotence: their set-piece moves were easily snuffed out by a defence led by Bastareaud and reinforced by the remarkable Guirado, who by the time he was replaced 15 minutes from the end had carried the ball more than any other forward and made 10 tackles.

Machenaud's fourth penalty on the hour extended France's lead to 10 points, not enough of an advantage for a team to remove its most influential player. England fought their way back, Daly's inside pass for Jonny May to cross the line a real contrast to the one attempted by Bastareaud at the end of the first-half which went many metres forward and at the time summed up an error-ridden tie.

At 19-16 England had the scent of victory, if not the title, but when a Courtney Lawes pass was intercepted, they conceded yet another penalty at the breakdown through Chris Robshaw which Lionel Beauxis turned into three points.

Still France tried to throw it away: when Luke Cowan-Dickie overthrew a five-metre line-out with time up, Beauxis failed to kick the ball dead and they had to defend another line-out. They were saved by the breakdown, Cowan-Dickie losing control of the ball near France's posts as he tried to wriggle over and England had been beaten more than once in the championship for the first time since 2010.


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