And when the French captain, Abdel Benazzi, predicted that France had only a 30 per cent chance of winning, what he really meant is that they had a 100 per cent chance in the last 30 per cent of the game. The fact that he wouldn't be there for most of that time was probably as big a surprise to him as it was to everyone else. But surprise was the word that overwhelmed Twickenham yesterday. Either it was an elaborate way of giving the Welsh an extra reason to get drunk on St David's Day or it was the genuine shock of the decade.
That it should ever be a shock for France to win a rugby game may show how far we have been seduced by the evidence of the Five Nations this far. England had wrecked the Irish and the Scottish with their merciless application of surging rugby in the final 30 minutes of each match. It was the memory of those late lunges that kept Twickenham buzzing with unflapping comfort when England didn't make the most of what we took to be clear superiority in the first hour.
The throbbing 30 minutes came sure enough - but its source was the French, who were without so many of their best players even before they experienced the ramshackling effect of England's confident entry into this game. The flashing wing Emile Ntamack was missing as was the impish Thomas Castaignede and their redoubtable three-quarter colleagues Richard Dourthe and Philippe Saint Andre. In addition, two top props were out as well two high-class flankers.
And when that list of absentees grew to include the lock Hugues Miorin early in the second half and then the skipper Benazzi after 65 minutes, it did not look the most promising of causes - especially when Benazzi's replacement was a hooker, Marc de Rougemont.
But the French have always been experts at drawing strength from disorganisation and I will leave what exactly happened to transform the match in that dramatic final half-hour to more expert eyes, although I'm not even sure that they know.
But we can be sure that this victory has restored to France that confidence which they wear so well. It also ensures that they have an excellent chance of winning the Grand Slam when they meet Scotland in Paris in two weeks' time. If they achieve that triumph then they will have drawn from this season the maximum satisfaction.
Success in European rugby has now become two dimensional since the introduction of the European Cup. France, we hardly need reminding, were the victors of that trophy when Brive annihilated Leicester in the final at Cardiff at the beginning of the year.
To have beaten England's best club team and now England itself is a double achievement of some note completed on a pitch that had cut up rather badly. Obviously God had misheard our prayers - we said Cheltenham, not Twickenham.
The common denominator in the two victories was Christophe Lamaison, who starred for Brive in the final and yesterday was the most accomplished man on view. He scored a try, chipped for another, scored conversions, penalties and a drop goal. It was, as his name suggests, a full house.Reuse content