Rugby union: Lamaison brings house down

Five Nations' Championship: Rowell's Grand Slam dream is shattered as French stage a stunning fightback
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England 20 France 23

Tries: Dallaglio 40 Tries: Leflamand 62

Pens: Grayson 6, 9, 11, 52 Lamaison 70

Drop: Grayson 46 Pens: Lamaison 3, 77

Drop: Lamaison 34

Cons Lamaison 62, 70

Seldom in the history of international rugby has there been such a spectacular transformation in the fortunes of two sides. With 20 minutes remaining of a contest sustained by might if not always majesty, France were down and out. Their forwards had been bludgeoned into submission by the irresistible force of England's pack, and their raw, inexperienced three-quarter line had made every elementary blunder from A to Z. The result was a foregone conclusion, the story of yet another English victory had been written.

Then all hell let loose at Twickenham and what we witnessed for the final unbelievable quarter was a most remarkable resurrection. It began in the 61st minute when Christophe Lamaison, without any question the man of the match, threaded a beautifully-angled kick behind the English backs. Tony Underwood had for some reason crept too far infield and Laurent Leflamand tore the ball from his grasp to cross the line for the first French try.

Lamaison, who had earlier kicked a penalty and dropped the neatest of goals, converted, but given England's overwhelming dominance up until this point it seemed a minor blip in their march to victory. And when Abdel Benazzi, the French captain, talisman and outstanding performer, left the field injured to be replaced by Marc de Rougemont, a hooker of all things, it seemed that all hope of a revival had gone.

Incredibly, the French, who had stuttered and stammered throughout the match and had been woefully inadequate in finding any measure of continuity between forwards and backs, moved smoothly up a gear and began to play sublime rugby. Suddenly, their ball retention was immaculate and their linking work was sheer perfection.

With four minutes of the match remaining and France camped five metres from the English line, their line-out, which had failed to register for so much of the match, exploded into life around their giant lock Olivier Merle and the French backs were on the move again with dazzling speed and sleight of hand. Somehow Lamaison took Alain Penaud's pass with one hand and broke through to score near the posts. This time the conversion was simple and the score was tied at 20-20.

From being in complete control England now went to pieces. Their forwards were fragile where before they had been immovable. The French pounced on every loose ball, they poached, pilfered and once again surged forward into the heart of England's defence. Every time they ran they made ground against by now bemused opponents and, with just four minutes remaining, Tim Rodber conceded a penalty in the easiest of positions for Lamaison to strike the winning points for France.

It was a personal triumph for Lamaison, who had scored 16 points and had shot to pieces Jason Leonard's pre-match remarks that forwards win matches while backs merely influence the margin of victory. It was also a tribute to the collective spirit and discipline of a makeshift French side.

It is fair to say, however, that if England were never as good as they were made out to be in their crushing victories over Scotland and Ireland, they were for much of this match better than the score suggested.

In many ways this was their most impressive display of the season. Until that incredible finale, they held France in an iron grip. They denied France line-out possession and even on those rare occasions when the French succeeded in prising the ball from England's grasp, it was so slow as to be more of a hindrance than a help. It was difficult to remember an international when the French forwards were so anonymous, and there were times when even Benazzi was reduced to the mediocre.

To make matters worse, their problems up front were compounded by a catalogue of almost farcical errors behind. The absence of so many top-class performers through injury was clearly one of the reasons for their malfunction but so too was the intolerable pressure exerted in all areas of the field by England.

Yet the ruthlessness with which England had finished off Scotland and Ireland was lacking yesterday. It was to cost them dear. With Martin Johnson and Simon Shaw creaming everything off the top of the line-out, and the flankers ranging far and wide in support of backs who were showing a spirit of adventure which in previous matches had lain dormant until the final quarter, England should have been further than 14-6 ahead at half-time. Paul Grayson had kicked three penalties and missed two, but when Andy Gomarsall found Phil de Glanville and the centre turned inside to send Dallaglio steaming for the line, England appeared to have everything under control.

In fact, Dallaglio, once he had the ball in his hands, moved like the proverbial runaway train and even though Grayson was unable to convert the try he made amends with a crisply struck drop goal six minutes into the second half. When he extended that lead five minutes later with his fourth penalty, the game, we thought, was over.

If, as is rumoured, this is Jack Rowell's final game at Twickenham as England's coach, it will be a disappointing end to a term of office which has promised much but, a little bit like this match, fulfilled little, although for England there is still the prospect of a Triple Crown in Cardiff on Saturday week.

England: T Stimpson (Newcastle); J Sleightholme (Bath), W Carling (Harlequins), P de Glanville (Bath, capt), T Underwood (Newcastle); P Grayson (Northampton), A Gomarsall (Wasps); G Rowntree (Leicester), M Regan (Bristol), J Leonard (Harlequins), M Johnson (Leicester), S Shaw (Bristol), L Dallaglio (Wasps), T Rodber (Northampton), R Hill (Saracens).

France: J-L Sadourny (Colomiers); L Leflamand (Bourgoin), C Lamaison (Brive), S Glas (Bourgoin-Jallieu), D Venditti; A Penaud, P Carbonneau (all Brive); C Califano (Toulouse), M Dal Maso (Agen), F Tournaire (Narbonne), O Merle (Montferrand), H Miorin (Toulouse), A Benazzi (Agen, capt), F Pelous, O Magne (both Dax). Replacements: R Castel (Beziers) for Miorin, 55; M de Rougement (Toulon) for Benazzi, 65.

Referee: J Fleming (Scotland).

How they stand

P W D L F A Pts

France 3 3 0 0 82 57 6

England 3 2 0 1 107 42 4

Wales 3 1 0 2 81 72 2

Scotland 3 1 0 2 70 85 2

Ireland 4 1 0 3 57 141 2

Remaining fixtures: 15 March: Wales v England (Cardiff Arms Park); France v Scotland (Parc des Princes).

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