A defeat to make Woodward smile

France 17 England 16
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Clive Woodward could not have been deadly serious about extending England's sequence of 14 successive victories after handing the captaincy to a veteran hooker. In any case, the team led by Dorian West in the south of France did not look on paper as strong as the one that outplayed Wales in Cardiff last weekend. In the event, Les Rosbifs were quite magnificent: red in tooth and claw. While Bernard Laporte fielded pretty much his favourite squad, Woodward kept his crème de la crème in reserve, probably for the rematch at Twickenham on Saturday evening. Whereas France have never been beaten here, England have won their last 22 matches at Twickenham.

Last night's Red Rose variety featured half-a-dozen players who had the unenviable task of having to produce their best on a balmy night at the highly charged Stade Velodrome. They not only came desperately close to producing a quite extraordinary result, but proved yet again that England's strength in depth is unparalleled. In the end, France prevailed narrowly with a try, three penalties and a drop goal to a goal and three penalties.

Any notion that this would be a friendly warm-up was dispelled within a minute, when half the front rows went off for treatment to blood injuries. The tone had already been set before the start when Phil Larder, England's defensive coach, stood his ground as the Foreign Legion band marched down the middle of the pitch. Instead of getting out of their way, Larder remained statuesque, forcing the musicians to march around him. The decibel level of the booing would have wakened the dead in Marseille.

France took an early lead when Frédéric Michalak landed a penalty, but after nine minutes England were level. Although Paul Grayson was wide with a drop-goal attempt, he had the chance to make amends from a penalty awarded for offside, and he made no mistake.

Ben Cohen went off to have a cut stitched, but in his absence England hit the front with a well-worked try. From a line-out Alex Sanderson won possession, the rest of his pack drove forward and Grayson slipped a beautifully timed short pass to Mike Tindall. The centre, running a great angle, beat a tackle to scythe through a bemused French defence.

For the first time England were playing in their new skin-tight jerseys. In one respect, Tindall's try promoted the shirts' non-stick value; in another, however, the quality was embarrassing, for the 1 on Tindall's 12 had already dropped off.

Grayson's conversion put England 10-3 ahead after 18 minutes, and two minutes later they were unfortunate not to ram home their advantage when Lewis Moody burst through Fabien Galthié to set up an excellent opportunity in front of the French posts, from where Grayson chipped to the left-hand corner. It looked inch-perfect as Iain Balshaw won the race to touch down, but the full-back was adjudged to have been offside.

Although Michalak failed with a penalty, he made no mistake with a drop goal to make it 6-10, and then France regained the lead. Austin Healey fumbled in midfield, and from the turnover Les Bleus counterattacked brilliantly down the left through Yannick Jauzion. The centre sent the full-back, Nicolas Brusque, over in the corner. The try was given despite a cover tackle from Cohen. There was another example of English gamesmanship when Michalak, about to attempt the conversion, saw a member of the England back-room team run across his line.

From the restart, Brusque had an attempted clearance charged down by Sanderson, but the flanker failed to ground the ball over the line, a judgement confirmed by the video referee. England got back in front in the fourth minute of injury time when Grayson kicked a penalty, but two minutes later, the French went into the tunnel 14-13 ahead following a Michalak penalty. Balshaw was again desperately unlucky, in more senses than one. From a cross-kick by Josh Lewsey, Balshaw looked as if he was about to score, but then the ball took a cruel bounce to deny him. That was not the worst of it for Balshaw, who was replaced a minute later, having suffered another leg injury.

England regained the lead after 60 minutes with Grayson's third penalty to make it 14-16, but five minutes later his opposite number Michalak replied in kind to edge France ahead 17-16.England could have snatched a famous victory if Grayson had not had a drop-goal attempt from in front of the posts charged down and then been off target with a longer-range effort. England will expect to exact revenge on Saturday.

France 17
Try: Brusque
Pens: Michalak 3
Drop: Michalak

England 16
Try: Tindall
Con: Grayson
Pens: Grayson 3

Half-time: 14-13

France: N Brusque (Biarritz); A Rougerie (Montferrand), Y Jauzion (Toulouse), D Traille (Pau), C Dominici (Stade Français); F Michalak (Toulouse), F Galthié (S Français, capt); J-J Crenca (Agen), Y Bru (Toulouse), S Marconnet (S Français), F Pelous (Toulouse), J Thion (Biarritz), S Betsen (Biarritz), I Harinordoquy (Pau), O Magne (Montferrand). Replacements: B Liebenberg (S Français) for Traille, 54; R Ibanez (Saracens) for Bru, 55; P Tabacco (S Français) for Betsen, 65; D Auradou (S Français) for Thion, 65; O Milloud (Bourgoin) for Crenca, 67; S Chabal (Bourgoin) for Magne, 76.

England: I Balshaw (Bath); J Lewsey (Wasps), O Smith (Leicester), M Tindall (Bath), B Cohen (Northampton); P Grayson (Northampton), A Healey (Leicester); G Rowntree (Leicester), D West (Leicester, capt), J White (Leicester), S Borthwick (Northampton), D Grewcock (Bath), M Corry (Leicester), A Sanderson (Sale), L Moody (Leicester). Replacements: S Thompson (Northampton) for West, 50; J Noon (Newcastle) for Balshaw, 54; S Shaw (Wasps) for Borthwick, 60; J Leonard (Harlequins) for White, 1-3; for Rowntree, 60; A Gomarsall (Gloucester) for Tindall, 76.

Referee: M Lawrence (South Africa).