At the end of a non-vintage Six Nations' Championship, no one could deny France's right to crack open the champagne. England had a good crack at spoiling the celebrations, and in the process in Paris may have discovered something fresh and uplifting about themselves with enough time before the next World Cup to make a difference. They were left nevertheless doing what every oddsmaker had expected them to do: applauding Thierry Dusautoir and his team on to the title-winners' rostrum, with the Grand Slam to go with it.
The gleaming trophy was assured to Les Bleus an hour before kick-off, by dint of Ireland's defeat to Scotland, and it sat by the pitch throughout, giving solid silver form to France's seventh title since 1995; comfortably the best record in the open era (England have four). It was the Slam the French were playing for: a first in six years and a ninth overall.
By selecting Toby Flood at fly-half at the expense of Jonny Wilkinson, the England manager, Martin Johnson, had made a long overdue nod to the virtue of pace. As it turned out, Wilkinson was on the field for the final quarter, raising the prospect of a classic drop-goal denouement. The position never presented itself, however, and the lesson for Johnson and his coaches – whose performance will be subject to close scrutiny in a review by the RFU – must be to abandon their tendency to pick a team to cater for slow ball and follow the French, who tolerate only the quick stuff.
England's debutant wing, Chris Ashton, a serial try-scorer in the Premiership for Northampton, would say amen to that. He was involved almost immediately, when England let rip for a thrilling try in the fifth minute. In the second half he was waving like a tourist for a Parisian taxi when the magnificently indomitable Mark Cueto broke the French line but Danny Care, following up, lost possession.
"Defensively we were superb throughout," said Johnson. "We did the things we wanted to do." That would have included Ashton's club-mate Ben Foden attacking intelligently from full-back on his first start for his country.
Where rugby's ancient rites were turned upside down was at the set-piece, where France dominated. Their scrum and line-out were twin pillars of an Arc de Triomphe and they cost England territory, keeping Flood off the front foot. He was on it to begin with, though, when following François Trinh-Duc's drop-goal from 30 metres, England stretched the French defence on the right through Cueto. The ball flashed the other way and Flood, Riki Flutey and Ashton sent Foden in at the corner. Flood's conversion had England ahead 7-3.
"We knew if we chanced our passes [Mathieu] Bastareaud would come out and we'd get round him," said Johnson, in a rare lapse into self-congratulation. Bastareaud, the 18-stone son of Guadeloupian parents and a Paris suburb, was dumped by Mike Tindall, the squire of the 12th in line to the throne, in a titanic early tackle. But there were many others who had more influence.
Without the injured captain, Steve Borthwick, for the first time under Johnson, the English line-out served up some easy meat to the French (it was an early misfire which set up the position for Trinh-Duc's scudding drop). As for the scrum, the International Rugby Board's referees have got themselves into a rare old tizz over setting them correctly, to the point where they hardly ever do. England could not work out what the French or the New Zealander referee, Bryce Lawrence, were up to in the first half and that led to the second and third of three penalties by Morgan Parra, which had his side 12-7 up at the interval.
England's stand-in captain, Lewis Moody, had a 100 per cent record as a skipper at Leicester – two wins in two matches over 13 seasons. Yet England have been used to ruffling the French cockerel's feathers of late, with wins in four of the countries' previous five meetings, including here in the 2007 World Cup and 2008 Six Nations. Something clicks when the red rose sees blue. As France's coach, Marc Lièvremont, put it: "I'm proud of my team but we must pay tribute to England. As usual they played their best against us."
Emboldened by that crucial set-piece base, France's key performers began to unlock their tricks. Parra, the hyperactive 21-year-old scrum-half from Alsace, nipped and parried. Imanol Harinordoquy at No 8 nicked possession at the breakdown and kept his cool when England tried to rough him up. The visitors brought on Steve Thompson at hooker at half-time; Bastareaud and Tindall soon made way for the more elusive David Marty and Mathew Tait. But when Ashton got free he tried the chip over the full-back, Clément Poitrenaud, too early when he might have been better keeping the ball in hand.
Still, Ashton looks the type who will learn; he must stay in the team. Care's fumble on the hour hurt England. Within seconds Wilkinson was on for Flutey, with Flood shifted to inside centre. France counter-rucked brutally to turn England over again, but Trinh-Duc punted long. And when Wilkinson's left boot whacked over a 50-metre penalty from the right touchline after 67 minutes, a shiver of fear went round the stadium. A two-point gap, Wilko on the field – the French fans had done the maths.
What relief for them, therefore, when Foden, seeking momentum on his own 22, was judged to have thrown a quickly taken line-out forward. Johnson argued over that with the referee at the final whistle, upset that it had allowed France, who had been obliged to commit greater numbers to the breakdown than in previous matches, to pin England at the wrong end of the field. An England team that had been starting to depress even their most ardent fans may have glimpsed a new dawn. But this was France's night and France's tournament.
Man for man marking
CLEMENT POITRENAUD 6/10
A couple of early steps only took him straight into Shaw, which is never fun. After that he didn't have much to do bar catch it and kick it.
MARC ANDREU 6/10
Asterix to the Obelix inside him – and that, in the absence of anything particularly galling, is a compliment.
MATHIEU BASTAREAUD 5/10
Hit Flutey horribly hard but was too slow for England's try and was somewhere out of position most of the rest of the time. Didn't matter, but it will in the future.
YANNICK JAUZION 6/10
Remarkable how a bloke his size is now routinely described as the small, quick one in France's centres. Solid enough.
ALEXIS PALISSON 6/10
So young he's got the kind of adolescent bumfluff beard that doesn't join up properly. Petulant? Yes. Good player.
FRANCOIS TRINH-DUC 6/10
Dropped a slightly scruffy goal and then settled into the unlikely role of enjoying the ride behind a French pack that was dominating the English.
MORGAN PARRA 6/10
Kicked his penalties when the pack won them where it counted and had more of a platform than Care. A shrewd, effective performer.
THOMAS DOMINGO 8/10
Extracted a number of very telling penalties and did quite a bit of damage to Cole's self-confidence in the process. Not a bad second-choice, all in all, with the highly rated Fabien Barcella to come back.
WILLIAM SERVAT 8/10
Line-outs were fine and the scrum was very good, punishingly for his opposite number. Ask Hartley – getting your head shoved where the sun don't shine again and again tends to turn the legs to jelly. Deserved his rest.
NICOLAS MAS 8/10
Gave Payne a lot of hurt in the tight, although Cole was more under fire on the other side as a succession of England scrums went down in a sort of Domingo effect. Sorry.
LIONEL NALLET 6/10
Very active in and around the rucks and mauls and, obviously, part of a superior effort in the scrums. Stayed on when Chabal came on, probably out of seniority.
JULIEN PIERRE 6/10
Seemed to be holding up one attempted English driving maul on his own, which rather summed up the whole first half.
THIERRY DUSAUTOIR 7/10
Never misses a tackle, even when his man (usually Moody) hasn't got the ball, a slightly bitter, English man-marker might remark. He might also remark that when the man (usually Moody) has got the ball, a Dusautoir tackle is an oddly, brutally beautiful thing.
JULIEN BONNAIRE 7/10
One of your bigger opensides – built more like the solid-steel sculptures Jean-Pierre Rives now makes than the man himself – in a pack built to take no nonsense. Took none.
IMANOL HARINORDOQUY 7/10
The Basque No 8's pre-match routine about grudges and not liking English food much (probably) are becoming as familiar – and about as welcome – as Brian Moore complaining. Best just get on with being extremely good, as he did here. Bled for the cause and was forced from the field.
David Marty on for the underperforming – and over-rated? – Bastareaud. Dimitri Szarzewski On for Servat. Jean-Baptiste Poux On for Domingo. Sébastian Chabal On for Pierre for a bit of the old ultraviolence. Alexandre Lapandry For Harinordoquy. Julien Malzieu For Andreu.
BEN FODEN 7/10
Caught his first high ball – under no pressure – and put in the first aimless kick. Then steamed in for a beauty of a try and went on to make a very good showing indeed.
MARK CUETO 6/10
Attacking the tackle like everyone else – to his own disadvantage, sometimes. You make Moody captain and you get suicidal commitment from everyone. Made a lovely second-half break that led to nothing, sadly.
MIKE TINDALL 7/10
Picked to bosh Bastareaud when France had the ball and steam straight at the ambling behemoth in blue when England did. Did both and more in a strong performance that ended surprisingly early. A fitness thing? Had to be.
RIKI FLUTEY 6/10
Got absolutely Bastareauded first up, but also exploited the big boy's positional naivety. Gave way to Wilkinson.
CHRIS ASHTON 6/10
Try-provider for Foden. Don't know if the lilac boots were a good idea – you might do that kind of thing in Wigan, son, but this is Paris – and when clear in the second half, he kicked far too early and a four-on-one chance was gone. That was very costly, sadly.
TOBY FLOOD 6/10
Got the backs moving to good effect and looked like getting moving himself sometimes. Moved out to the centre when Wilkinson came on.
DANNY CARE 6/10
At the hub of some decent quick ball before the rain came down and the French pack got a grip on the game. Came back into it later on, like his team.
TIM PAYNE 5/10
Has had a good Six Nations, but he struggled in the scrums here like everyone else.
DYLAN HARTLEY 5/10
Line-outs and scrums were a struggle. Popped up in the loose a lot – some of his runs were good, some of them not so good. Off at half-time.
DAN COLE 5/10
Gave way in front of Domingo a few times, gave way to Wilson at half-time. Came back on for Payne and fought hard.
LOUIS DEACON 6/10
Worked well with Palmer, but losing Shaw affected the scrummaging effort rather more seriously than might have met the untrained eye.
SIMON SHAW 5/10
Hurt his shoulder, which might have been why he didn't use his arms in a tackle, reversing a penalty. Went off, chastened.
JOE WORSLEY 6/10
Tackle, tackle, tackle. Sprint, sprint, sprint. Carry, carry, ca– drop. But the ball was wet and the hits were heavy, in his defence. Which was strong.
LEWIS MOODY 7/10
Captain Mad Dog. The Kiwi referee, Bryce Lawrence, thus ended up talking to "Seven" - 'Sivin' - "white" even more than usual, and as Lawrence seemed to be delivering an Alan Bennett monologue England's way, it must have been a trying evening. Played well, though, all through it.
NICK EASTER 7/10
Might have expected to have been made captain in the absence of Steve Borthwick, but wasn't. Got on with his usual solid play instead, and at No 8 in a struggling pack that isn't easy.
Tom Palmer On for Shaw and showed up well. Even hammered Chabal. Large. David Wilson On for Cole, unsurprisingly. The scrums improved. Steve Thompson On for Hartley. Helped sort the scrum out. Mathew Tait On for Tindall in one of your more contentious substitutions. Not his fault. Jonny Wilkinson On for Flutey. Went for a huge penalty and got it, for 12-10. James Haskell On for Worsley.