Rugby Union / Five Nations' Championship: Luck gives England the edge

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England. . .16

France . . .15

IF ENGLAND succeed in their quest for an historic third successive Grand Slam - and it is by no means certain on the evidence of yesterday's patchy performance at Twickenham - they will have the crossbar at Twickenham's North End to thank. With the game into its final 10 minutes, one point separating the sides and Jean-Francois Tordo, a savant as well as a stonemason, drawing every ounce of energy from his towering pack, Jean-Baptiste Lafond moved surreptitiously in behind his line-out, who had played such a dominant part throughout the match, and unleashed a left-footed drop for goal.

Flying on a flat trajectory but sustained in its flight by the boisterous wind, the ball rebounded from the crossbar and was scrambled to safety. Minutes later, Aubin Hueber, full of hustling impertinence at scrum-half, attempted a similar ploy but with no more success. The game ended in a veritable blizzard of cross-field passing by both sides but neither defence could be breached.

England had successfully negotiated the first leg of their historic journey, and one can only marvel anew that they did it without playing anywhere near their best.

It was, in fact, a thoroughly unconvincing display. Not that this is likely to be of any great concern to the England party in the first flush of victory, but it may concentrate their minds by the time their thoughts turn towards the next hurdle in Cardiff.

For France, la revanche will have to wait. They might have known that a bleak and blustery Twickenham was no place to gain revenge on a side who have now inflicted six successive defeats upon them. But they could hardly have come closer.

With England determined not to volunteer those splinters of loose ball upon which the French thrive, it was not easy to see where France were going to win enough possession to trouble their opponents.

As it happened, France did not need to feed off scraps. Neither did they require a great deal of possession in the loose. They were sufficiently well supplied, for the first 30 minutes at least, in the tight, where their scrummage was immoveable, and in the line-out where Roumat, Benazzi and Cabannes were cleaning up in the air, and Tordo was leaving scarcely a crumb on the ground.

At this point, Martin Johnson, called into the imperial guard at the 11th hour, was playing as if in a trance, unable to combat the supreme athleticism of the French locks and in particular his immediate opponent, Abdel Benazzi. But as the game progressed so Johnson came to his senses and began to make a number of crucial contributions to his country's cause. Nevertheless, England will no doubt be grateful for Wade Dooley's massive presence against Wales.

In many ways the embodiment of England's indomitable spirit was Jon Webb. For so much of the game he was at odds with himself and with the fickle wind, and suffered all manner of indignities, the worst of his aberrations leading to Philippe Saint-Andre's first try after just eight minutes.

Yet, over the piece, Webb did just enough to come out on top, kicking three penalties and converting Ian Hunter's critically timed try a couple of minutes before half-time. Here again it was a touch of wood which worked in England's favour and scuppered the French. Webb's penalty kick had rebounded off the post and with the French defence rooted to the spot, Hunter, in full flight, gathered under their very noses and plunged over for the try. Webb's conversion gave England a lead which they scarcely deserved but one which they did not relinquish.

England's forwards played well enough in the second half to keep the French on the back foot. It was, though, a grim battle. Peter Winterbottom, as full of combative energy as ever, his flaxen thatch swathed in bandages, has quickly established a rapport with his No 8 Ben Clarke, whose surging runs at the heart of the French defence were among the more memorable moments.

France shuddered at the impact but Tordo, who rode a gallant horse almost to the point of exhaustion, kept his side on the tightest of reins. This time, happily, there were no outbursts of Gallic temperament and no complaints. Jim Fleming had done his job well.

At full-back Lafond was altogether more reliable in his judgement than Webb, the French half-backs were more authoritative, and Saint-Andre, in a three-quarter line badly disrupted by injuries to Philippe Sella and Thierry Lacroix, was the outstanding back, although Jeremy Guscott made one glorious half-break which was brought to a shuddering halt when first Rory Underwood and then Webb were brought down a yard from the line.

The game had begun encouragingly for England with Webb kicking a penalty just 15 seconds from the kick-off when the England forwards had spectacularly upended Olivier Roumat and France were penalised at the ruck. Immediately France swept upfield and it became clear that the garryowen was to be the most effective attacking ploy in the swirling wind.

First to suffer was Webb. Lacroix, taking over the bombardment of the England full-back from Didier Camberabero, hoisted the ball high. Webb appeared to have it covered but just when he thought that he had the ball safely in his sights the England full-back discovered to his horror that the mischievous wind had tricked him. Saint-Andre, following up, dropped on the ball to score.

With France dominating the line-outs and Tordo sweeping up the debris, France took control throughout most of the first quarter. There was a brief respite for England when Webb kicked his second penalty, but 10 minutes later France increased their lead with Saint-Andre's second try.

This time it was Camberabero who made use of the wind. His towering garryowen was inch-perfect, catching the England defence behind their goal-line and in no position to prevent Saint-Andre from plucking the ball out of the air and dropping on it for the try. Camberabero's miss seemed of little import but turned out to be crucial.

Hunter's try just before half-time was the turning point. France were never again quite the force that they had been in the first 30 minutes. Webb and Camberabero swapped penalties and despite a number of chances later in the game, France were unable to make the decisive thrust.

For France, though, there is consolation. Last year's feather duster has re-emerged, very nearly in full plumage, as a proud cockerel, and in Paris next season they may even be able to break their melancholy sequence against England. For England, however, yesterday's victory, if not the manner of it, was enough for the moment. The biggest obstacle to their bold ambition has now been removed.

ENGLAND: J Webb (Bath); I Hunter (Northampton), W Carling (Harlequins, capt), J Guscott (Bath), R Underwood (Leicester); R Andrew (Wasps), D Morris (Orrell); J Leonard, B Moore (both Harlequins), J Probyn (Wasps), M Johnson (Leicester), M Bayfield (Northampton), M Teague (Moseley), B Clarke (Bath), P Winterbottom (Harlequins).

FRANCE: J-B Lafond (Begles); P Saint-Andre (Montferrand), P Sella (Agen), T Lacroix (Dax), P Hontas (Biarritz); D Camberabero (Beziers), A Hueber (Toulon); L Armary (Lourdes), J-F Tordo (Nice, capt), L Seigne (Merignac), O Roumat (Dax), P Benetton (Agen), M Cecillon (Bourgoin), A Benazzi (Agen), L Cabannes (Racing Club). Replacements: F Mesnel (Racing Club) for Sella, 33 min; S Ougier (Toulouse) for Lacroix, 50 min.

Referee: J Fleming (Scotland).

Scores: Webb (pen, 15 sec, 3-0), Saint- Andre/Camberabero (try/conv, 8 min, 3-7); Webb (pen, 10 min, 6-7); Saint-Andre (try, 16 min, 6-12); Hunter/Webb (try/conv, 38 min, 13- 12); Webb (pen, 55 min, 16-12); Camberabero (pen, 60 min, 16-15).

----------------------------------------------------------------- FIVE NATIONS' STANDINGS ----------------------------------------------------------------- P W D L F A Pts Scotland 1 1 0 0 15 3 2 England 1 1 0 0 16 15 2 France 1 0 0 1 15 16 0 Ireland 1 0 0 1 3 15 0 Wales 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 -----------------------------------------------------------------

To be played: 6 Feb: France v Scotland (Paris); Wales v England (Cardiff). 20 Feb: Ireland v France (Dublin); Scotland v Wales (Murrayfield). 6 Mar: England v Scotland (Twickenham); Wales v Ireland (Cardiff). 20 Mar: France v Wales (Paris); Ireland v England (Dublin).

(Photograph omitted)