Sunday 19 November 2017

Te'o delivers late blow to rescue Jones's ragged record breakers

England 19 France 16

England’s Ben Te’o celebrates scoring a try with team-mate Mike Brown. Photo: PA
England’s Ben Te’o celebrates scoring a try with team-mate Mike Brown. Photo: PA

Mick Cleary

New year, same outcome - an English victory against the grain but one of substance and character that completes a remarkable run of a record 15 successive victories.

It took a try in the 70th minute from a former rugby league star, Worcester centre Ben Te'o, on his first Six Nations appearance, to seal the deal. It was a score fitting of the outcome. It was the stuff of champions, in that England had to dig deep into their reserves to make it happen, to subdue a born-again France full of bite and sparkle. But that is what great teams do: live off their wits, absorb pressure and punishment, and prevail.

England are not an all-star cast but they are a side of grit and belief.

Let no one doubt the mettle of this England side. This was a triumph of heart and soul.

They had to do it the hard way, coming from behind for large chunks of the match. Victory looked a forlorn prospect at many junctures. Several England players had "big shoes to fill", as Jones has said of Maro Itoje's task in replacing Chris Robshaw.

The same was true of Nathan Hughes, who was given the job of making the same full-metal-jacket impact as Billy Vunipola.

England's Ben Te'o scores a try. Photo: Gareth Fuller/PA Wire
England's Ben Te'o scores a try. Photo: Gareth Fuller/PA Wire

The Saracen had been England's go-to man for the upfield trundle, dragging men with him. There was a lot of onus on the 25-year-old Wasp to bring his club form, those trademark thunderous charges. Instead it was France, all pumped-up, as they used to be for 'Le Crunch', who made much of the running. England were on the back foot, scrambling and scrabbling, striving to get a foothold - any foothold. It was a salutary lesson.

They lacked punch. At one stage No.8 Louis Picamoles had made more metres than the entire England pack put together.

England had a wonderful attacking position from a scrum early in the second half after Elliot Daly's toenail had scraped the touchline for what had looked like a good score, but were turned over at the scrum.

France, la belle France, have been anything but beautiful in recent years, more hag-worn and indifferent than carefree and expressive. Guy Noves, whose first season in charge saw only a fifth-place finish in the championship and a ledger of four wins in ten outings has begun to effect change to unshackle Les Bleus, to make them play with soul as much as with muscle, to liberate them. It showed.

England's Jack Nowell trying to evade tackles. Photo: David Davies/PA Wire
England's Jack Nowell trying to evade tackles. Photo: David Davies/PA Wire

This was France of old, with edge and desire. There was more belief in their game, more intent and understanding. They were very much back in the groove.

There was plenty of support from the Twickenham stands for the new-look France as they sprayed the ball wide. Full-back Scott Spedding was a constant menace, making huge yardage after snaffling an aerial knock-on when challenging for the ball with Jonathan Joseph. Both French wings, and Noa Nakaitaci in particular, were a threat with their surging bursts. It took a great claw-back tackle from Daly on Nakaitaci to save the England line.

Daly's value was also seen in his booming left boot, which thumped over a 50-metre penalty just before half-time to level the scores. The Wasps wing further enhanced his cause with a potentially try-saving tackle on Spedding after another turbo-charged run.

As with any French side of note, any attempt to run free is underpinned by a ferocious pack. Certainly France were big against the tape measure, weighing in at almost 950kg. It showed. England looked under-powered by comparison, unable to make much headway.

England have had trouble keeping players on the field, winning against the grain against Argentina despite being reduced to 13 men at one point. This time it was an early yellow card for wing Jonny May for whipping the legs upwards of centre Gael Fickou in the 12th minute. It wasn't the most heinous offence but it gave referee Angus Gardener reason to reach for the yellow card.

Camille Lopez kicked the goal, his second of the afternoon, Owen Farrell having slotted one earlier.

It was costly. England had a chance down May's flank only for Daly, switching wings, to kick it long. Moments later, Picamoles churned forward down the left and was only stopped by a high tackle from Itoje. Lopez again took the points. There were shades of his mentor, Dimitri Yachvili, whose six goals kicked England to defeat in France's last win at Twickenham, in 2005.

Itoje struggled to make an early impact on the blindside. It was a significant demand of Itoje, not just to show that he could adapt but that he could be Chris Robshaw in the process.

England were lucky to be 9-9 at the break. But they found their mojo at half-time. There was more snarl, more cleverness, more urgency.

France had to dig deep. Farrell's ball to Daly almost generated a try. England got their noses in front when Farrell knocked over a penalty in the 50th minute.

France came back strongly. England appeared to stand off the ball once a penalty had been indicated against Joe Launchbury for a high tackle. France struck, flanker Kevin Gourdon hit a sharp angle on to the ball before popping it up to replacement prop Rabah Slimani in support. Lopez converted to take the score on the hour to 16-12.

But this England team have shown they are made of stern stuff. And so it proved here. They did not wilt. Eddie Jones had said that his replacement bench would make a difference, and it did. First James Haskell was thrown on. Then centre Ben Te'o. Suddenly England had poundage. Haskell smashed through Lopez. England went left, found Te'o, who barrelled his way over.

Farrell converted. The record was clinched, the Grand Slam kept alive.

England head to Cardiff, chastened but still with champions' ambitions.

Scorers - England: Teo'o try; Farrell 3 pens, con, Daly pen

France: Slimani try; Lopez 3 pens, con

England: Brown, May, Joseph, Farrell, Daly, Ford, Youngs, Marler, Hartley, Cole, Launchbury, Lawes, Itoje, Wood, Hughes. Replacements: Te'o for Ford (69), Care for Youngs (66), Mullan for Marler (66), George for Hartley (55), Haskell for Launchbury (64).

France: Spedding, Nakaitaci, Lamerat, Fickou, Vakatawa, Lopez, Serin, Baille, Guirado, Atonio, Vahaamahina, Maestri, Chouly, Gourdon, Picamoles. Replacements: Huget for Lamerat (72), Doussain for Lopez (72), Machenaud for Serin (57), Slimani for Baille (46), Maynadier for Guirado (72), Chiocci for Atonio (46), Iturria for Vahaamahina (72), Goujon for Chouly (64).

Referee: A Gardner (Australia)

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