England 55 France 35: Game to redefine heroic failure

World Cup hopes rest on the familiarity of the current group of players bearing fruit

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It was anarchic, riotous, hallucinogenic. It will live long in the memory as a monument to the freedom of spirit and human fallibility which defines great sport. Twickenham has never known a match quite like it.

England redefined the notion of heroic failure and rugby was reinvented as a mad, muscular version of basketball.

When Nigel Owens, the world’s best referee, sounded the final whistle, the England head coach, Stuart Lancaster, sat head bowed, frozen by the magnitude of disappointment and assailed by the realisation of what could and should have been.

The old place was in shock. There will be those who say that the Six Nations trophy is a trinket compared to the Rugby World Cup, but they were distinctly in the minority here.

A collective sense of dejection was captured by Ben Youngs when he was asked to consider the hollow individual accolade of being named man of the match. “I don’t know what to say. I am devastated. We really gave it a crack. But with all that hard work and endeavour, we can’t keep letting them back into the game.”

Rugby’s longest day featured the traditional elements of football’s annual drama. It combined arithmetical frenzy, manic mood swings and predictable unpredictably.

It was an illustration of the fine margins involved in international sport, an indication of its attractions as an investigation into the human condition. It was trebles all round, in more senses than one, for the TV strategists and schedulers, who insisted on sequential tests rather than simultaneous contests.

Anthony Watson goes over for a try

It was also a battle of wills. Graham Rowntree, England’s forwards coach, had asked that the French feel the weight of a nation. He is the possessor of the finest set of cauliflower ears on the planet because he so relished confrontations with low-slung Gallic packs.

The French proved again, in a game of schizophrenic intensity, that they are the equivalent of free-form jazz, played at a million decibels. It is discordant, chaotic but there is a tune in there somewhere.

They sounded spectacularly after England had been given an improbably perfect start with a try in 97 seconds. Their spasm of attacking resistance highlighted the ultimately decisive nature of England’s failure to convert their superiority over Scotland into a more comprehensive victory last weekend.

That is just one area to be addressed in the months to come. No team with pretensions to be world champions can afford the sort of indiscipline shown by James Haskell, whose yellow card for a thoughtless tripping offence may prove personally costly. He has fought his way back into contention but such lapses dilute a coach’s trust.

Putting the finishing touches to England’s World Cup team has elements of completing a painting. The lines are right, the structures sound, the colours vivid. All that remains is to add texture and nuance.

The virtues of this group of players are becoming increasingly familiar, from the synchronicity between George Ford’s brain and hands to the slashing lines run with thrilling urgency by Jonathan Joseph. The scrum is solid, but the line-out requires renewal.

England were ultimately defeated

The All Blacks, who watched through the southern hemisphere night,  will still be resting easily. They will be confident of running up a cricket score in such circumstances in the autumn and they are comfortable with the trial of sudden death. They know what it takes to win.

Football, which could learn enduring lessons from rugby’s ability to aid referees with technology, describes these sort of matches as jumpers-for-goalposts affairs. The countdown was scintillating.

Wales, who had a 16-point advantage over England at the Twickenham kick-off, were overhauled with 26 minutes to play. England were one converted try away from the title when, with less than a minute left, Ford kicked into the corner.

Then something cathartic. The Twickenham crowd abandoned the ritual chorus of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and screamed “England, England, England, England” with unique tribal intensity.

England coach Stuart Lancaster reacts after the game

Lancaster’s team were encamped on the French line but could not enter legend. A comprehensive win felt like debilitating defeat. England, the team which proclaims to be sick of finishing second, finished second.

Lancaster spoke about coming to terms with competitive pressure. In truth, he had no option but to rally the troops, who responded to what he called a “cup-final atmosphere”.

These are the sentiments which will have time to sink in. “I know we were not successful, but I’m hugely proud of the way we showed such courage and faith. The World Cup will be a different thing again.”

Of that he can be sure. As with cases of over-indulgence, the hangover will be long and nauseous.


England's injuries

Ben Foden: Knee. Out for the season.

Manu Tuilagi: Missed entire Six Nations with groin injury. Could  return at the end of April.

Kyle Eastmond: Centre has returned to action with Bath after shoulder injury.

Brad Barritt: Picked up another knee injury on return to action with Saracens two weeks ago.

Owen Farrell: Out for whole tournament after tearing knee ligaments last month playing for Saracens.

Joe Launchbury: Underwent neck operation in December, missed entire tournament.

Ed Slater: Knee injury. Could be fit by April.

Ben Morgan: Out for the season after fracturing leg in January and having surgery.

David Wilson: Bath prop remains sidelined with nerve problem in his neck.