Seldom during their winning sequence over the French, which now stretches to six years and eight matches, have England been so overwhelmingly dominant. For more than three quarters of the game, this mighty England pack held France so tightly in their grip that they could scarcely draw breath. As wave after wave of English mastodons drove into the soft underbelly of the opposition defence, smashing it to a pulp and churning back more grist for the ever grinding mill, the French resistance was completely broken.
For France, therefore, it was much more than the containment of their volatile temper and the control of their minds. Given the hiding they were taking they did remarkably well to keep both reasonably well in check. But there is simply no answer to a pack which forces its rigidly imposed patterns on the opposition. If it was the back-row trio of Tim Rodber, Ben Clarke and Dean Richards who most often caught the eye and who will rightly receive so much of the praise, it was once again the performance of England's tight five which laid the foundations.
There could have been no more appealing incentive for the French than to see Brian Moore, their least favourite English bulldog, put down in front of his own crowd. But with Victor Ubogu and Jason Leonard, he provided a defiant first point of contact with the result that France spent most of the afternoon on the back foot.
Admittedly, the visitors' cause was not helped by the early departure of Laurent Benezech but even before his injury they were so short of basic provisions that they were having to send out foraging parties. Yet despite the tireless efforts of Laurent Cabannes they almost invariably returned empty-handed. The line-out which, statistically, went to the French, was another triumph for England, so superior was the quality of the possession which fell on their side of the line.
On the theory that all genuine knowledge originates from direct experience, England made straight for the most vulnerable French points. The French half-backs Christophe Deylaud and Guy Accoceberry can never have experienced anything like it. They spent so much of the game tackling English forwards that they had little left for attack.
Once, spectacularly, they managed to break free in the second half when Deylaud ran from his 22 and sent Bernat-Salles up the right touchline with what looked suspiciously like a forward pass. The wing kicked on and with Accoceberry and Cabannes acting as the links it was Sebastian Viars, the replacement at full-back for Jean-Luc Sadourny, who scored a glorious try. Thierry Lacroix converted and from nowhere France, who had never at any stage been close to England in any phase of play, were just three points behind.
For the second time, though, England's response to a French score was immediate. Rob Andrew, who had missed with three penalties in the first half but had also kicked two, was successful with his third penalty and followed it soon afterwards with a fourth when the French defence could no longer cope.
But the tries had to come and when they did it showed how far England have advanced since last season. First Andrew, short of support outside him, angled to perfection his kick towards Tony Underwood's wing. Philippe Saint-Andre made not the slightest effort to go for the ball but chose instead to obstruct Underwood, and when the Englishman, despite his marker's illegal intentions, appeared to get his hands on the ball, Ken McCartney, having received confirmation from his touch judge, awarded the try.
Minutes later, Underwood scored again and this time it was a gem of creative invention. Rodber, whose pace and commitment had never flagged, took the ball down the short side after Richards had picked up at a scrum. Mike Catt was thundering up outside and with a perfectly timed flick pass sent Underwood over in the corner. Andrew's conversion gave England the margin of victory their domination demanded.
They had broken France by half-time. Lacroix's penalty which opened the scoring after 18 minutes was so completely against the run of play that not even the French could take heart from it. Almost as if they had been embarrassed by their good fortune they immediately conceded a penalty from the kick-off and from in front of the posts Andrew levelled the scores. Seven minutes later, he put England into a lead which they never came close to relinquishing. An intense build-up close to the French line and the England forwards released the ball for Kyran Bracken to send Jeremy Guscott free. With Catt running outside him as the extra man, Guscott sensed that Philippe Sella and Deylaud had set off in anticipation of his pass and in a flash he had cut inside to cross for the try.
The French tail flickered briefly in the second half but not even their propensity for producing stirring counter-offensives could conceal the fact that seldom in recent memory have they been so clinically dismembered. The shock waves are even now being heard in Cardiff.
England: M Catt (Bath); T Underwood (Leicester), W Carling (Harlequins, capt), J Guscott (Bath), R Underwood (Leicester); R Andrew (Wasps), K Bracken (Bristol); J Leonard (Harlequins), B Moore (Harlequins), V Ubogu (Bath), M Johnson (Leicester), M Bayfield (Northampton), T Rodber (Northampton), B Clarke (Bath), D Richards (Leicester).
France: J-L Sadourny (Colomiers); P Bernat-Salles (Pau), P Sella (Agen), T Lacroix (Dax), P Saint -Andre (Montferrand, Capt); C Deylaud (Toulouse), G Accoceberry (Begles); L. Benezech (Racing Club), J-M Gonzalez (Bayonne), C Califano (Toulouse), O Brouzet (Grenoble), O Roumat (Dax), A Benazzi (Agen), L Cabannes (Racing Club), P Benetton (Agen). Replacements: M Derougement (Toulon) for Gonzalez (6-7); L Seigne (Brive) for Benezech (24); S Viars (Brive) for Sadourny (38).
Referee: K McCartney (Scotland).
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