Rugby Union: Five Nations - Full marks to the boy wonder

Wilkinson keeps Slam chance alive and kicking as England pack overwhelm France; England 21 France 10 Pens: Wilkinson 7 Try: Comba Con: Castaignede Pen: Castaignede Half-time: 9-0 Attendance: 76,000
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The Independent Online
FOR THE first 10 minutes England played quite beautifully, and if the day ever comes when they can extend that throughout the full course of a match, heaven help the opposition.

It is easy in the immediate aftermath of what was a massively disappointing contest to criticise the French, who for most of the game were completely out of sorts. But full credit must be given to England's remarkable defence, who are not only resistant to the opposition's runners but who turn defence into attack so quickly.

There were countless occasions yesterday when the French spilled the ball not as a result of carelessness but because of the power and precision of the English tackling. With the breathtaking accuracy of Jonny Wilkinson backing them up, an English victory seemed inevitable as early as the first quarter. Wilkinson finished by scoring all England's points from seven penalties, struck with remarkable precision from a variety of angles and ranges.

It was in that brief but encouragingly bright 10- minute spell, however, that England did enough to win the game. Their forwards drove with an obsessive hunger for the ball and with the laudable aim of recycling possession as quickly as possible for their backs. The backs, in turn, ran with pace and purpose and France, still scared from the Welsh experience a fortnight ago, were completely at sea.

They didn't help themselves, admittedly, conceding three penalties in the first five minutes, two of which were in kickable range and were duly converted by the steel-braced Wilkinson. He does give the impression that no matter the degree of difficulty of the kick it is harder for him to miss than to hit the mark. But not for the first time England failed to sustain the momentum and fulfil their undoubted promise.

That France were still in touch at half-time and even at the final whistle after Franck Comba had taken advantage of Philippe Carbonneau's scuffed kick across field to score in the last minute was as much of a mystery as Ireland being within a score of victory minutes from the end at Lansdowne Road a fortnight ago.

The English forwards, although they creaked a bit in the scrums, were irresistible in the loose, where Lawrence Dallaglio gave another colossal display. His running from the base of the scrum, until he switched to the flank in the second half to accommodate Martin Corry, relieved much of the pressure from his hard-pressed front row and made significant dents in the French defence.

The opportunities opened up but chances, and good ones at that, went begging. There was no clearer opening than the one presented to Mike Catt in the midst of what must surely be his ninth life as England's fly- half. It came at a crucial time near the end of the first half with England comfortably cushioned by Wilkinson's three penalties. Dan Luger ran powerfully down the left but was tackled close to the touchline. France won the ball and worked it swiftly back to Carbonneau, whose clearing kick was charged down a yard from the line by Richard Hill. England swept the ball to Catt but, with three players unmarked outside him, the fly-half chose to go solo. He was clattered to the ground and a certain score became a relieving penalty for France.

On a day when it was hard to credit France with anything, they probably deserved their luck on this occasion. There had been flashes of individual skill and subtlety, particularly from the half-backs Carbonneau and Thomas Castaignede, but their most dangerous attacks were built too far out to threaten England's impregnable defensive rampart, and instead of gaining momentum as they progressed, the French attacks petered out against an endless wall of England shirts.

The self-confidence and the audacity, the hallmarks of French play, were disappointingly absent yesterday. This is not a good French side and they can consider themselves extremely fortunate not to have lost by a much greater margin. The closest they came to scoring in the first half was when Xavier Garbajosa was tackled by Matt Perry in the corner as he was on the point of touching down. The touch judge ruled that his foot was in touch, a decision confirmed by the television replay. But the French made too many unforced errors to survive at this level.

England's most effective tactic, which has worked well for them already this season, was the high kick to the wings, a favoured ploy of rugby league sides and another example of the increasing influence which Phil Larder is exerting. Catt executed it once to perfection towards Luger. The wing deftly palmed the ball infield to Perry who, in one delightful sweep, passed to Jeremy Guscott. Had Guscott not lost control of the ball in the tackle it would have been a try. Catt himself came almost as close to scoring from the same tactic, this time as the wide receiver for Guscott's kick on the other side of the field.

Despite their enthusiasm for attack, England had to be content with penalties from the infallible Wilkinson and throughout the match they were showered with the awards, first from Colin Hawke, the New Zealand referee, and then, when he went off with a calf strain, from the Scotsman Jim Fleming. Wilkinson calmly kicked his fourth, fifth and, most impressively of all, his sixth penalty from 40 metres during a second half in which England gained in strength, and when Marc Raynaud came haring off the back of a line-out in a blatantly offside position on the French 22, we had already written Wilkinson's name on the score sheet.

It was at that point that the Basque band struck up "Flower of Scotland". Whether it was a lament or a premature welcome to the Scots in a fortnight's time was impossible to say. If it was a lament it was not misplaced.

England: M Perry (Bath); D Rees (Sale), J Wilkinson (Newcastle), J Guscott (Bath), D Luger (Harlequins); M Catt (Bath), K Bracken (Saracens); J Leonard (Harlequins), R Cockerill (Leicester), D Garforth (Leicester), M Johnson (Leicester), T Rodber (Northampton), R Hill (Saracens), L Dallaglio (Wasps, capt), N Back (Leicester). Replacements: M Dawson (Northampton) for Bracken 34, M Corry (Leicester) for Hill 49, N Beal (Northampton) for Rees 64, V Ubogu (Bath) for Garforth 79.

France: E Ntamack (Toulouse); X Garbajosa (Toulouse), P Giordani (Dax), F Comba (Stade Francais), C Dominici (Stade Francais); T Castaignede (Castres), P Carbonneau (Brive); S Marconnet (Stade Francais), R Ibanez (Perpignan, capt), F Tournaire (Toulouse), O Brouzet (Begles-Bordeaux), F Pelous (Toulouse), T Lievremont (Perpignon), C Juillet (Stade Francais), R Castel (Beziers). Replacements: C Califano (Toulouse) for Marconnet 46, M Raynaud (Narbonne) for Pelous 66, D Auradou (Stade Francais) for Lievremont 66.

Referee: C Hawke (New Zealand). Replaced by J Fleming (Scotland).