England pack complete rite of passage to keep Slam hopes alive

England 17 France 9: Johnson dismisses 'ridiculous' talk after side overcome tough French challenge

It took a fair bit of nerve for Marc Lièvremont to pinch a line from Winston Churchill so soon after telling the world exactly how much he disliked the English, but French rugby coaches have never been complete strangers to bare-faced cheek. "Success," he said, philosophically, "is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm."

As the England pack had reached the mid-point of the Six Nations Championship wondering whether they could find a way of getting from one scrum to another with no loss of dignity, there was a certain resonance to his choice of words.

There were times during the first half of this utterly compelling contest when the short, squat, immensely powerful tricolore front-rowers had their hosts rocking. In the space of a few minutes, Thomas Domingo smashed poor Toby Flood into the middle of Richmond High Street with an endomorphic blast upfield; William Servat hared dangerously into the red-rose 22 off a line-out before being called back for an illegal throw; and Nicolas Mas turned up the blowtorch at a set-piece to earn Dimitri Yachvili three precious points with the boot.

Suddenly, the nature of England's progress over the last 11 months – an intermittent kind of progress, but progress all the same – was under the most intense examination. Could a very young sharp-end unit, made all the younger by the early introduction of Alex Corbisiero, stand the heat, stay in the kitchen and help cook up a victory?

They answered in the affirmative, and in so doing, they completed what might come to be seen as a rite of passage. Martin Johnson's team emerged from this crisis – let's call it a "critical Mas" for humour's sake – without anything terminal happening to them, and from there on in, the French found it impossible to make anything happen for themselves.

After the interval, a deflated Domingo was so conciliatory he bordered on the "Placido", while his two partners grew ever more exasperated at George Clancy's refereeing of the scrum. By the end, the England front-rowers had won the set-piece penalty count by a distance.

"I don't want to say there was a home-town referee out there, but it was almost like that," muttered Yachvili, the scrum-half from Biarritz. "You'll have to ask the referee about his decisions, because I didn't understand any of them," said Lièvremont, by way of reinforcing the point.

But Dylan Hartley, who always tells it how he sees it, saw it and told it very differently. "It annoys me, reading all week how people are going to come here and push us around," said the Northampton hooker, who engaged in a full and frank exchange of views with the hulking great Clermont Auvergne lock Julien Pierre at the first scrum and continued to bristle for the next 70 minutes.

"There wasn't much in that incident, but it was my way of stamping my authority, of saying, 'This is our patch, we're here to stay and we're not going to be mucked about'. We had George Clancy against the Springboks back in November and he did us for four early engagements. It's all about analysis, about knowing what a particular official wants. We went out there well prepared and did our job."

None more so than Hartley himself, who, along with his Northampton clubmate Tom Wood, turned in a performance of genuine international class. In a contest as tight as a drum – one mistake by Yachvili, one high-calibre finish from Ben Foden and one extraordinary penalty from Jonny Wilkinson were all that separated two evenly-matched sides – the energy generated by England's forwards was decisive.

Despite the breaking of the half-back link between Flood and Ben Youngs; despite the threat posed by the brilliant French centre Yannick Jauzion in the second quarter; despite the visitors' success in reducing the much talked-about Chris Ashton to something of a sideshow – despite all this, the pack went about their work at a high tempo, and with a cold-eyed fury.

"That," said a deeply satisfied Johnson, "is what Test rugby is really all about. Two weeks ago when we scored early against Italy and had the game won after half an hour, it was a question of how many. Here, we had to fight and graft, and that's generally the way of it when you play at this level.

"We could easily have lost this game. I said at half-time that we should forget about throwing speculative passes, because against a good side, with a wet ball, it's five times better to run hard than to speculate.

"There's nothing exotic about it. It's about fundamentals," he added. "When you give the ball back to the opposition, it has to be on your terms. When you make an error, which you will, you don't compound it. We were better at those things today, especially after the interval."

France made the errors that mattered. Clement Poitrenaud had one of his peculiar days – when the supremely gifted Toulouse full-back is a notch off his game, it tends to be a bloody big notch – and while Yachvili hurt England in the opening 40 minutes with his sixth-sense touches around the fringes, he was the one charged down by Tom Palmer in the opening moments of the second half. From the five-metre scrum, England went right, then left, and when Foden seized on the ball as it ricocheted off Mark Cueto, he fixed Yoann Huget with a show and a step, brushed off the scrambling Francois Trinh-Duc and scored in Aurelien Rougerie's tackle.

At 14-9, the match was still in knife-edge territory, and with Thierry Dusautoir and Imanol Harinordoquy cranking things up in the back row, England had much to do. The man who did it for them was Jonny Wilkinson, of whom the French have been petrified for more than a decade now.

With half an hour left on the clock, he took the field for the injured Flood and was immediately faced with a wickedly difficult penalty shot close to the right touchline, the best part of 50 metres from the sticks. As Johnson remarked: "An eight-point lead in so close a game is almost worth double." No pressure there, then.

Wilkinson appeared to underclub the ball, but no goal-kicker in the history of the sport ever had a better understanding of his yardages. If he put the three-wood back in his bag and went for the three-iron instead, no one was likely to argue. He doesn't have a caddie anyway. Not on the pitch, at least. Dave Alred, his long-time guide and counsellor, was up in the stand, sitting immediately to Johnson's left. Alred knew his man would nail it. So too did the whole of France.

Afterwards, Johnson described confident talk of a first Grand Slam since 2003 as "ridiculous" and "crazy", adding: "It would be nice, of course, but if we lose to Scotland in two weeks' time..."

However, the Slam will be the dominant theme whatever the manager says, and he knows it. "There'll be a lot of hype, a lot of build-up," he acknowledged. "I don't really mind, because we haven't had that for a few years. It's going to be an interesting ride for all of us."

Scorers: England: Try Foden. Penalties: Flood 3, Wilkinson. France: Penalties Yachvili 3.

England: B Foden (Northampton); C Ashton (Northampton), M Tindall (Gloucester, capt), S Hape (Bath), M Cueto (Sale); T Flood (Leicester), B Youngs (Leicester); A Sheridan (Sale), D Hartley (Northampton), D Cole (Leicester), L Deacon (Leicester), T Palmer (Stade Francais), T Wood (Northampton), J Haskell (Stade Francais), N Easter (Harlequins).

Replacements: A Corbisiero (London Irish) for Sheridan, 24; J Wilkinson (Toulon) for Flood, 51; D Care (Harlequins) for Youngs, 68; S Thompson (Leeds) for Hartley, 71; S Shaw (Wasps) for Deacon, 76; M Banahan (Bath) for Hape, 81; H Fourie (Leeds) for Cole, 82.

France: C Poitrenaud (Toulouse); Y Huget (Bayonne), A Rougerie (Clermont Auvergne), Y Jauzion (Toulouse), V Clerc (Toulouse); F Trinh-Duc (Montpellier), D Yachvili (Biarritz); T Domingo (Clermont Auvergne), W Servat (Toulouse), N Mas (Perpignan), J Pierre (Clermont Auvergne), L Nallet (Racing Metro), T Dusautoir (Toulouse, capt), I Harinordoquy (Biarritz), S Chabal (Racing Metro).

Replacements: D Traille (Biarritz) for Poitrenaud, 52; J Bonnaire (Clermont Auvergne) for Chabal, 51; S Marconnet (Biarritz) for Domingo, 62; M Parra (Clermont Auvergne) for Yachvili, 65; J Thion (Biarritz) for Pierre, 65; A Palisson (Brive) for Trinh-Duc 70; G Guirardo (Perpignan) for Servat, 82.

Referee G Clancy (Ireland).

The match statistics


England 1         Tries        France 0

England 0/1         Conversions        France 0/0

England 4/4         Penalties        France 3/5

England 0/0         Drop goals        France 0/1

Phases of play

England 5         Scrums won        France 6

England 0         Scrums lost        France 0

England 12         Line-outs won        France 10

England 1         Line-outs lost        France 1

England 7         Pens conceded        France 8

England 2         Mauls won        France 2

England 24         Ruck and drive        France 11

England 55         Ruck and pass        France 60

Team statistics

Eng 157         Passes made        France 150

England 3         Line breaks        France 0

Eng 19         Possession kicked        France 21

England 6         Kicks to touch        France 5

England 99         Tackles made        France 92

England 4         Tackles missed        France 1

Eng 5         Offloads in tackle        France 7

Eng 13         Total errors made        France 16

Ball won

England 81         In open play        France 73

Eng 24         In opponent's 22        France 7

England 25        At set-pieces        France 23

England 7         Turnovers won        France 3


* Results so far

Wales 19 England 26, Italy 11 Ireland 13, France 34 Scotland 21; England 59 Italy 13, Scotland 6 Wales 24, Ireland 22 France 25; England 17 France 9, Italy 16 Wales 24, Scotland 18 Ireland 21.

* Remaining fixtures

Sat 12 Mar Italy v France, Wales v Ireland; Sun 13 Mar England v Scotland.

Sat 19 Mar France v Wales, Ireland v England, Scotland v Italy.