France 31 England 6: England suffer Les Bleus in Paris

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The trouble with pinning all hopes of survival on a single oasis in a Sahara-sized creative desert is that oases sometimes dry up.

Charlie Hodgson has cut a lonely figure all season as England's one footballer of international calibre - the only member of a midfield capable of seeing further than the end of his own nose - and yesterday the months of isolation caught up with him, rendering him as barren as the human sand dunes surrounding him. As a result, the reigning world champions shrivelled to nothing and suffered a record-equalling defeat that bordered on the embarrassing.

Hodgson was withdrawn at the interval after enduring 40 minutes in one of the more unpleasant corners of sporting purgatory. According to the England management, he had suffered a hamstring injury and was unable to continue. However, it would have been an act of purest cruelty to have sent him back out there to face the likes of Frédéric Michalak, Damien Traille and Florian Fritz.

The Sale outside-half spent the first half fluffing kicks and missing tackles, and while there were plenty of under-performers to keep him company - Matthew Dawson and Mike Tindall in particular will require a course of psychoanalysis when they get home - it was the No 10's frailty that hurt the visitors most badly.

England were 16-3 adrift when Andy Robinson, the head coach, decided to spare Hodgson further punishment. Sadly for him, it was not a move that spared the rest of the team. France would have piled on the humiliation in the third quarter had Dimitri Yachvili nailed his kicks and Jérôme Thion not fumbled a scoring pass from Fritz.

As it was, they piled it on in the fourth quarter instead. Traille capitalised on his own marvellous break past Josh Lewsey, who had been repositioned in the centre following Tindall's departure from the field, by sliding a wicked kick towards the England line and then gathering the ball off his bootlaces to complete the try.

Yachvili then added his fourth and final penalty before converting an interception score from Christophe Dominici, who second-guessed Andy Goode and scuttled in at the sticks.

Not since the six-try mauling of Peter Dixon's side at the Stade Colombes in 1972 had an England team gone under by 25 points in Paris, but that statistic does not tell anything like the full story.

It is only a preface, for this was the most hapless championship performance by a red-rose team in the professional era. Their attacking game had a peashooter quality about it - indeed, it beggars belief that either Dawson or Tindall will trouble the selection panel again - and their kicking strategy would have made Muffin the Mule look sophisticated. They enjoyed a marked superiority at the scrummage, but with their skills at rock bottom and their tactical awareness scarcely up to the standard of the Middle Wallop Extra Third XV, possession merely exposed them in their considerable shortcomings.

When Robinson was asked immediately after the game whether this was his lowest moment in the job, his reply was of the one-word variety: "Obviously." He was scarcely more loquacious in his assessment of the whys and wherefores, although he did manage a semi-poetic moment by saying: "We knew we had to silence the crowd. Today, the band played."

The coach described his players as "stunned" - an appropriate enough offering, given the stupefying quality of their performance - and while he mentioned that Dawson, Tindall and Steve Thompson were among those suffering from a gastric complaint picked up on the eve of the game, he did not intend it as an excuse. This was a wise move. If Dawson and company felt ill at the start of the game, their followers in the stands were feeling a whole lot worse after sitting through it.

Reasons to be cheerful? There were precious few from the moment Michalak hoisted a high ball on Lewsey in the opening minute, the flanker Yannick Nyanga scared the living daylights out of the full-back with his athletic challenge on the 22 and Traille made sufficient sense of the mayhem to usher in Fritz for the opening score.

There were a few neat touches from Matt Stevens with ball in hand, some bullocking runs from the enthusiastic Ben Cohen and a display of heroic futility from Martin Corry at No 8, who played a captain's knock while most of those around him were giving catching practice to the French.

Time and again, Corry threw himself at the opposition. It made not the slightest difference whether he had the ball or not, for the effect was the same: once the Leicester No 8 dipped his shoulder, sundry Tricolores disappeared into the ether. If an England captain ever gave more of himself to a losing cause, his identity does not spring to mind. Yet for all his energy and selfless devotion, Corry was undone at every turn. It is devilishly difficult to work up a head of steam when you are wading through a sea of dung.

France ambled along at more than a point a minute from the kick-off, and with Yachvili adding a couple of penalties to his conversion of the Fritz try, they were 13-0 to the good well inside the quarter-hour.

In other words, they were virtually out of sight before England had clapped eyes on them. In the space of a few horrible moments, Hodgson messed up a quick restart from his own 22-metre line, missed a tackle on Nyanga and made a desperate hash of a simple penalty shot at goal - a costly aberration that stripped his spirit bare and left England without a playmaker worthy of the name.

Not to put too fine a point on it, England were unworthy in most areas of their game. Robinson promised, so far as he was able, to put things to rights when Ireland visit Twickenham on Saturday in the last fixture of the Six Nations campaign.

"We want to make a fortress of Twickenham," the coach said. On this evidence, he will be defending that fortress with toy soldiers.

France: T Castaignède (Saracens); A Rougerie (Clermont Auvergne), F Fritz (Toulouse), D Traille (Biarritz), C Dominici (Stade Français); F Michalak (Toulouse), D Yachvili (Biarritz); S Marconnet (Stade Français), R Ibañez (Wasps), P de Villiers (Stade Français), F Pelous (Toulouse, capt), J Thion (Biarritz), Y Nyanga (Toulouse), O Magne (London Irish), T Lièvremont (Biarritz).

Replacements: O Milloud (Bourgoin) for De Villiers 52; J Bonnaire (Bourgoin) for Magne 58; D Szarzewski (Stade Francais) for Ibañez 62; L Nallet (Castres) for Pelous 67; L Valbon (Brive) for Traille 75.

England: J Lewsey (Wasps); M Cueto (Sale), J Noon (Newcastle), M Tindall (Gloucester); B Cohen (Northampton); C Hodgson (Sale), M Dawson (Wasps); M Stevens (Bath), S Thompson (Northampton), J White (Leicester), D Grewcock (Bath), S Borthwick (Bath), J Worsley (Wasps), L Moody (Leicester), M Corry (Leicester, capt).

Replacements: A Goode (Leicester) for Hodgson, 40; T Voyce (Wasps) for Tindall, 59; H Ellis (Leicester) for Dawson, 59; A Sheridan (Sale) for Stevens, 62; L Mears (Bath) for Thompson, 62; L Dallaglio (Wasps) for Worsley, 62; S Shaw (Wasps) for Grewcock, 72.

Referee: A Rolland (Ireland).

Stade de France statistics

* TOP CARRIERS

Martin Corry 12

Mike Tindall 11

Florian Fritz 8

Raphael Ibañez 9

Thomas Castaignède 7

* TOP TACKLERS

Lewis Moody 12

Martin Corry 11

Yannick Nyanga 11

Olivier Magne 10

Jamie Noon 8

* MOST MISSED TACKLES

Lewis Moody 2

Jamie Noon 2

Steve Borthwick 1

Mark Cueto 1

Harry Ellis 1

* MOST OFFLOADS IN TACKLE

Mike Tindall 3

Martin Corry 2

Josh Lewsey 2

Lewis Moody 2

Fabien Pelous 2

* MOST HANDLING ERRORS

Andy Goode 5

Lewis Moody 5

Charlie Hodgson 4

Martin Corry 3

Frédéric Michalak 3

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