France 13 England 24: England upset odds as Jonny puts boot into France again

Early try from Sackey before debutant Wigglesworth adds finishing touch to put Red Rose brigade back in title hunt
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The Independent Online

The contrast between the two countries, and more pertinently the coaches, is chalk and fromage and last night France discovered that only one of them appeals to the gourmet.

France's failure to beat England in the World Cup semi-final here last October prompted a revolution, with the new coach, Marc Lièvremont, being more imaginative than Robespierre. The feeling abroad is that he has been doing what Brian Ashton should have done a few months ago – axeing the dead wood and giving a chance to the new generation.

Les Rosbifs or nouvelle cuisine? Last night France's ambitious approach – in the key positions of scrum-half, stand-off and No 8, Lièvremont fielded three players in Morgan Parra, François Trinh-Duc and Louis Picamoles who between them had only 100 minutes of Test rugby – was meat and drink to England.

At the heart of Ashton's conservatism has been the loyalty shown to some of the players who took England to the World Cup final in Paris four months ago, in particular Jonny Wilkinson, arguably England's greatest ever player, unarguably their greatest points-scorer.

A debate ensued – should he stay or should he go? The French would like him to go, for here he again kicked them to distraction, scoring 14 points with three penalties, his trademark left-footed drop goal and a conversion of one of England's two tries.

As in the World Cup semi-final here, when England beat France 14-9, the Red Rose brigade got off to a flier. This time it was Jamie Noon's crash-ball tackle on the full-back Cédric Heymans that knocked France off their feet. The ball ran loose, Paul Sackey hacked through and comfortably won the race for the touchdown.

It set a pattern and it was England's pragmatism that prevailed over French flair. One of the reasons for this was England's excellent defence, in which the centre Toby Flood was outstanding; another was France's propensity to fumble or knock on. France, who had beaten Scotland and Ireland and had high hopes of defending a Six Nations title they had won in the last two years, had butter fingers and time and again England were able to counterattack.

They also had an advantage at the scrum, where they won a number of crucial penalties. Les Bleus' sloppy handling was highlighted in the dying minutes when David Skrela, who had come on as replacement at fly-half, knocked on a pass in front of his own posts. So England were able not only to run down the clock by laying siege to the French line, but their punishing series of drives ultimately opened up a gap through which the new man at scrum-half, Richard Wigglesworth, wriggled through for the try that killed off the French challenge.

So England started with Sackey's try from France attempting to run the ball inside their own 22 and ended with Wigglesworth capitalising on a similarly reckless adventure. In between Wilkinson, benefiting from the decisions of the referee, Steve Walsh, who infuriated most of the crowd, kept England ahead.

Indeed, they were never seriously threatened despite the fact that the French captain, Lionel Nallet, crashed over for a try that, with its conversion, made the score 10-7. It was the closest that France came.

In Damien Traille they did not possess a specialist goal-kicker and he failed with two penalty attempts in a first half which ended with England leading 13-7. England, of course, had Jonny. Wilkinson does not hit the bull's eye as relentlessly as he used to but his goal-kicking is still invaluable to his country's fortunes. The stand-off kicked a penalty on 14 minutes after Pascal Pape had been penalised for handling in a ruck, after which England suffered the misfortune of seeing their dynamic flanker James Haskell limp off.

Wilkinson added another penalty after 30 minutes and then produced a try-saving tackle on the French hooker Dimitri Szarzewski.

When the England hooker. Mark Regan, repeatedly cuffed the France prop Lionel Faure, it was the 19-year-old scrum-half Parra, taking over the goal-kicking duties from Traille, who made the scoreline 13-10. Once again the stadium was filled with expectation and hope and once again it was Wilkinson who silenced the crowd. After he had failed with two penalty attempts in quick succession England at last began to make use of their Tongan addition on the wing, Lesley Vainikolo. When England mounted a series of attacks deep inside French territory, Wilkinson checked before dropping a goal that made it 16-10. It was his 29th in internationals, overtaking Hugo Porta's world record for the discipline.

When another scrum collapsed, again with a penalty going to England, Wilkinson's kick on 70 minutes meant that France would have to score twice if they were to win the match. Dimitri Yachvili, who replaced Parra, kicked a penalty to make it 19-13 but Skrela's knock-on extinguished any hope France had of victory.

Ashton's selections had been questionable in the extraordinary defeat to Wales at Twickenham and the lacklustre victory over Italy but at least last night Wigglesworth came through for the England coach. "France came out fighting on all fronts in the second half," Ashton said, "but we handled it and in the last 10 minutes of the game we had a firm grip on it." So they did. Perhaps England are nocturnal.