Brian Ashton has spent the last 13 months talking about a great leap forward for English rugby. Here in the French capital he watched some English rugby forwards leave their opponents in a great heap, which was almost the same thing but not quite. Ashton's team did not silence the home crowd with the dynamism of their running game or stagger them with the breadth of their vision, but they succeeded in exposing the frailties of this new Tricolore team while re-establishing their credentials as serious challengers for the Six Nations title. The coach would happily have settled for that before kick-off.
Whoever decreed that this game should start at the ungodly hour of 9pm local time (and we all know the decision was driven by television) will not be terribly popular with the likes of Lionel Faure, Nicolas Mas and Jean-Baptiste Poux – the poor souls condemned to meet Andrew Sheridan and Phil Vickery in the dark. The two English props turned the wide expanse of Stade de France into a narrow muggers' alley with an unscaleable wall where the exit should have been; the kind of place best avoided by those who would rather not surrender their dignity along with everything else. Faure, Mas and Poux entered because they had no choice, and were stripped bare.
And as if it was not enough, being on the painful end of Sheridan's finest Six Nations performance and another of those vintage Vickery displays that might be celebrated as one man's angry refusal to succumb to the ravages of age and infirmity, they had to put up with Mark Regan as well. Dimitri Szarzewski, the gifted hooker from the Stade Français club who had recently encountered the Bristolian in two Heineken Cup matches, described his opposite number as "unbearable" in the days before this fixture. Predictably, Regan made it his business to prove Szarzewski right.
He worked his way so far up French noses that Marc Lièvremont, the highly articulate former flanker who took over as national coach after last autumn's World Cup, could not stop himself "going off on one", as the contemporary jargon has it. "I really didn't appreciate the behaviour of the English hooker, which was outside the spirit of the game and completely unacceptable," he said. "He was ridiculous, grotesque, a clown." To which the accused loftily responded: "It's the ultimate compliment to be booed off in Paris and have a French coach whinge about you."
Regan is nearing the end of his service as an international front-rower: he won his first cap 13 years ago and has been wrestling with the French since 1996, when Will Carling and Philippe Saint-André were the two captains. On this occasion, he lasted no longer than 49 minutes, but Ashton had only good things to say about his senior professional. "He's a hell of a scrummager, a good scrapper in the nicest sense of the word and a great bloke," the coach commented, before adding, purely for Lièvremont's benefit: "I have the utmost respect for every player in the world who pulls on an international shirt, because it's a massively difficult thing to achieve." Ouch.
It is generally assumed that, by this time next year, Dylan Hartley of Northampton and David Paice of London Irish will have zipped past Regan in the pecking order. But while the West Countryman was some way short of his best individual form in this game, no one was better suited to pressing home the advantage established by Sheridan and Vickery at the set piece. The French were obliterated by the props, then had the profoundly questionable pleasure of having their obliteration described to them by the hooker. Rugby can be an evil game.
If the French do not find themselves some props from somewhere, Lièvremont's grand design for a bold attacking style rooted in the very best of his country's rugby culture will be stillborn. They conceded any number of penalties at the scrum on Saturday night – Jonny Wilkinson missed two shots at goal in the space of 90 seconds following Tricolore infringements at the engagement before finally punishing their frailty with an important 50-metre strike 11 minutes from time – and also suffered the cringing embarrassment of being shoved off their own ball. The country that gave Roques, Domenech, Iracabal, Vaquerin, Cholley and Califano to the sport had no platform worthy of the name. It took some believing, but it was true.
There were times when the three inexperienced players in the spine of the side – the No 8 Louis Picamoles, the scrum-half Morgan Parra and the stand-off François Trinh-Duc – showed flashes of something special. Parra, in particular, was a threat around the fringes of ruck and maul either side of the interval, when the home side, lifted by a close-range try from their excellent captain Lionel Nallet, threatened to raise the tempo of the game to a level that would have asked hard questions of the visitors. But whenever the French went close to constructing something of value, the English reminded them that only one side had their foundations in place.
Ashton was far from overwhelmed by his side's victory. Their two tries, scored at either end of the contest, were not much to write home about: the referee, Steve Walsh, missed a knock-on by the hard-tackling Jamie Noon that led to Paul Sackey's kick-and-chase score on four minutes while Richard Wigglesworth's try late in the evening was the result of a brute-force occupation of the French line. Early problems at the line-out were a cause for concern, as was the usual inability to create openings for the strike runners in the back three.
In short, it was a very English victory of very English proportions. But Ashton at least saw enough from Toby Flood in midfield to feel he has something on which to build. "Toby had a pretty decent game out there," he said. "Actually, I've just had a text message from Will Greenwood making exactly the same point, which is high praise indeed from one of the maestros of the inside-centre role. We gave Toby added responsibility and he coped well, particularly in terms of his defensive organisation." It seems one of England's major positional problems has been solved to the coach's satisfaction.
Might there be some tinkerings for the Calcutta Cup match in Edinburgh a week on Saturday? Not unreasonably, Ashton was in no rush to commit himself. "I won't hesitate to introduce new faces if I feel it appropriate," he said. "But I saw hints of a move forward in this match. I felt the mood amongst the players was positive, in that they weren't afraid to try to play. Wilkinson had one of his best games since 2003 while Vickery was immense in every respect. I think he was stung by suggestions that he couldn't play for more than 50 minutes. He told me straight that he wasn't coming off until the end. There was no point me even thinking about a substitution."
The bright young things – Danny Cipriani and Matt Stevens, to name but two – will have to be patient just a little longer, it appears. At least England know where these people are and do not have to go looking for them. Meanwhile, the French continue to peer under every stone in the search for a half-decent prop.
France: C Heymans (Toulouse); A Rougerie (Clermont Auvergne), D Marty (Perpignan), D Traille (Biarritz), V Clerc (Toulouse); F Trinh-Duc (Montpellier), M Parra (Bourgoin); L Faure (Sale), D Szarzewski (Stade Français), N Mas (Perpignan), L Nallet (Castres, capt), P Pape (Stade Français), J Bonnaire (Clermont Auvergne), T Dusautoir (Toulouse), L Picamoles (Montpellier). Replacements: J-B Poux (Toulouse) for Mas, 56; W Servat (Toulouse) for Szarzewski, 59; J Thion (Biarritz) for Pape, 59; D Skrela (Stade Français) for Trinh-Duc, 67; D Yachvili (Biarritz) for Parra, 67; A Floch (Clermont Auvergne) for Rougerie, 68; F Ouedraogo (Montpellier) for Picamoles, 79.
England: I Balshaw (Gloucester); P Sackey (Wasps), J Noon (Newcastle), T Flood (Newcastle), L Vainikolo (Gloucester); J Wilkinson (Newcastle), R Wigglesworth (Sale); A Sheridan (Sale), M Regan (Bristol), P Vickery (Wasps, capt), S Shaw (Wasps), S Borthwick (Bath), J Haskell (Wasps), M Lipman (Bath), N Easter (Harlequins). Replacements: T Croft (Leicester) for Haskell, 21; L Mears (Bath) for Regan, 49; B Kay (Leicester) for Shaw, 71; M Tait (Newcastle) for Noon, 72; M Stevens (Bath) for Sheridan, 74.
Referee: S Walsh (New Zealand).Reuse content