England's path to a first Grand Slam in eight years was cleared of the third, French hurdle by a try from an accomplished full-back and the ability of a team strong enough in spirit and organisation to rise above the errors that told of a thunderously tight contest. Ben Foden's pulverising finish rubber-stamped a positive start by England to the second half and the boot of the old maestro, Jonny Wilkinson, did its bit too.
Every kind of scrum cropped up in the first half, when France had the better of the set piece. The French won one against the head after 20 minutes that drew Tom Wood into a panicky offside and gave Dimitri Yachvili his second equalising penalty of the three kicked by the stick-legged No 9. The scrum went down, sideways and up. There was even a free-kick against France for a crooked feed. England also lost Andrew Sheridan, who played in the win in Wales but missed the romp here against Italy, to a calf problem 23 minutes in.
The 9-9 scoreline at the break – England led 3-0, 6-3, 9-3 and 9-6 with penalties by their fly-half, Toby Flood (pictured) – told of the well-matched nature of things. And there was much more, satisfyingly and grippingly more, going on. The distribution of Flood and his captain, Mike Tindall, suffered under tackling led by Thierry Dusautoir. But Tom Palmer tackled equally ferociously for England and also held their line-out together.
Contentious incidents abounded. Did Shontayne Hape prevent a French try with a cute nudge on Yoann Huget on 36 minutes? Was Tindall really held in the tackle when he had a try ruled out for not releasing in the second half? Most hurtfully to the French, would they have managed a comeback had Aurélien Rougerie been able to grasp François Trinh-Duc's grubber for a certain try four minutes after Wilkinson, just on for Flood, established England's two-score lead with a cool penalty in the 53rd minute?
England's fresh kit for the second half came with a fresh attitude. A minute in, from a scrum near the posts, Mark Cueto was only just held up but Ben Youngs and Flood switched play to the left, where the ball bounced out of Cueto's hands perfectly for Foden, who scored with an easy hand-off of Trinh-Duc and a piledrive through Rougerie.
"We were a bit frantic in the first half and didn't settle into our game," Tindall said. "At half-time we said, 'Let's play to our tempo'. Sometimes you've got to win ugly – and that can be even sweeter."
Flood's conversion went wide – the first kick missed by England in 19. Until now, the motif of the Championship had been Chris Ashton's swallow dive. Here, when the wing's chance came, it was in vain. Flood's pass round the corner to Youngs was forward, so although the scrum-half fed Ashton and the Wiganer believed he was adding to his six Championship tries – he waited to cross the line before making the exultant leap – he was made to turn and see the referee's horizontal arm.
Instead, Julien Pierre conceded a penalty for going off his feet and Wilkinson's first touch edged him past New Zealand's Dan Carter to regain the world points scoring record, on 1,190. That could not have been more grimly portentous to the French if Wilkinson had been wearing a black cloak and carrying a sickle.
Yachvili, cringingly, hit the post from short range. France's record of one Championship win at Twickenham since 1997 was not about to improve. Wilkinson opened his shoulders and set Tindall on a run: head down. Youngs caught the dodgy-pass bug on the run, but he was a gusty tryer all the way through.
The crowd cheered prematurely on 71 minutes when Wilkinson sent Tindall through – the captain was penalised. Imanol Harinordoquy tapped and Alexis Palisson hacked – and there was Wilkinson, cleaning up, as assured as rugby's version of baseball's "closer" pitcher as he had been in Cardiff three weekends ago.
So, three wins out of three for England, with Scotland here and Ireland in Dublin to come. It may not feel quite like 2003 and all that but for success-starved Twickenham man and woman, it will certainly do.
England B Foden; C Ashton, M Tindall (capt), S Hape (M Banahan, 75), M Cueto; T Flood (J Wilkinson, 50), B Youngs (D Care, 65); A Sheridan (A Corbisiero, 23), D Hartley (S Thompson, 66), D Cole (H Fourie, 75), L Deacon (S Shaw, 70), T Palmer, T Wood, N Easter, J Haskell.
France C Poitrenaud (D Traille, 50); Y Huget, A Rougerie, Y Jauzion, V Clerc; F Trinh-Duc (A Palisson, 66), D Yachvili (M Parra, 62); T Domingo (S Marconnet, 59), W Servat (G Guirado, 75), N Mas, J Pierre (J Thion, 62), L Nallet, T Dusautoir (capt), S Chabal (J Bonnaire, 50), I Harinordoquy.
Referee G Clancy (Ireland).
England: Man for man marking
Ben Foden 7/10
Took his first high ball; lost his second to Aurélien Rougerie. As eager as ever to run the ball back, if running it back at Thierry Dusautoir proved not to be much fun. Ran in his try very well.
Chris Ashton 6/10
Tracked and took the ball for what looked like another spectacular swallow-dive try in the second half. But, alas, a forward pass. Wilkinson sent him straight through later and he made a hash of a pass to Cueto.
Mike Tindall 6/10
Some of his distribution makes passing a kidney stone look painless. However, his tackling might have given the French centres a few abdominal problems and he took Julien Bonnaire in the teeth without blubbing, which not many people do.
Shontayne Hape 6/10
Passing was about as convincing as Tindall's, eg: not remotely. One of his flings turned a counterattack chance into a scramble to avoid a French try. Also butchered a rare overlap on the left when a second try was needed.
Mark Cueto 6/10
Didn't enjoy quite the fine times he did in the first two games when being used instead of a centre to run or kick out of defence. Also put in his fair share of committed and often canny defence and is fully entitled to claim that he meant his flip-flick pass to Foden for the only try of the match.
Toby Flood 6/10
Seems to have become a genuine Test kicker, which is a bonus when his genuine Test hands desert him, as they did a little here. Brighter later, then off.
Ben Youngs 6/10
Reads the game like a bright 13-year-old exchange student steaming through 'Tricolore 4A'. Also, though, like any 13-year-old he can be a little untidy. Put that down to the general mayhem.
Andrew Sheridan 6/10
Got a nudge on Nicolas Mas for the first scrum penalty – prompting, pleasingly for those of more old-fashioned mores, the first punch-up too. Got the second penalty too. Then he broke again.
Dylan Hartley 7/10
Steamed into the French lines like a maddened bull, to go for a sly McLarenism. Lost a scrum against the head for 9-9 but that turned out to be just a blemish on a good display.
Dan Cole 7/10
Seemed to be enjoying a bilingual (or, as it was between props, monotonal) running (or, between props, plodding) conversation with Domingo, at the scrums and away from them.
Louis Deacon 7/10
Could follow the ludicrous BBC intro film by saying there were probably solid blokes from Leicester all over the field at Agincourt too. Instead will attempt some form of reasoned comment by saying he played very well in the tight and the loose.
Tom Palmer 7/10
Knocked himself groggy in a tackle that, in the way of such things, didn't look particularly heavy. Nor did some of Hartley's throws to him in the line-outs look that straight, but he recovered his wits and took them. Charged down Yachvili for the scrum that set up Foden's try and generally barged about to pleasing effect.
Tom Wood 7/10
Nicked France's first throw at the front of a short line-out and waded about in the thickest thickets like an old steer, not a three-cap greenhorn. Won a vital ruck penalty towards the end.
James Haskell 7/10
Sometimes looks a bit like an Oscar – statuesque. That said, he put in a contender for Best Hit, on Chabal in the second half and, naturally, didn't flinch from any of the very roughest stuff.
Nick Easter 7/10
Wades onwards, carrying defenders like a wildebeest beset by leopards. Put in a massive tackle on Chabal – he had the edge over France's big beast – but then gave away three points in the same movement. Not averse to a big hoof to relieve stretched defence, either.
Alex Corbisiero On for Sheridan for his second Test or, in scrummaging terms, his first TEST, against Mas. Might feel like he sat engineering, biology and languages finals on the same day. And came away with a decent 2.1.
Jonny Wilkinson On for Flood; a swing of the boot for a 48-metre penalty and the world Test points record. Good distribution, too.
Danny Care On for Youngs for 15 minutes.
Steve Thompson On for Hartley.
Simon Shaw On for Deacon to win a great turnover on Morgan Parra.
Hendre Fourie On for Cole, a flanker for a prop.
Matt Banahan On for Hape.
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