France 26 England 24 match report: England recover from awful start to stand on the cusp of victory only to fall to heartbreaking defeat
Debutant Luther Burrell had appeared to give the visitors another famous victory in Paris but for a brilliant try scored by young centre Gael Fickou
Compelling, captivating…and ultimately heartbreaking for a courageous England side who, for all their inexperience in the back line, fought tooth and claw to put a horrible opening spell behind them and work their way into a winning position. They were denied at the death, just three minutes from time, by a couple of flashes of French brilliance, the last of them a wondrous dummy from the brilliant young centre Gael Fickou. It was a match-winning act worthy of the title.
England were 16-3 adrift as early as the 22 minute and looked for all the world like a side without foundations – no great surprise, given that their three-quarter line had the princely sum of nine caps between them, but no less alarming for that. Yet with Billy Vunipola in resplendent form at No 8 and the half-backs, Danny Care and Owen Farrell, outplaying their opposite numbers by a distance, they reached the last knockings five points to the good at 24-19. Then came Fickou and the coup de grace.
Had any England players been looking at the big screens around the stadium rather the staring straight in front of them during one of the more boisterous renditions of “La Marseillaise”, the expression on the face of Jules Plisson, the French debutant at outside-half, would not have escaped their notice. The poor lad looked petrified – as white as the proverbial sheet. Here was something in the visitors’ favour, surely: not only was Plisson completely new to rugby of this magnitude, he was also a stranger to the highest levels of the club game.
Sure enough, the Stade Francais midfielder’s first significant act – an attempt to thread a kick through the England line towards the right corner – went wrong. And then it went right. The ball cannoned off the Gloucester centre Billy Twelvetrees and fell perfectly for Yoann Huget, a powerful wing not noted for rejecting free gifts. Huget scored with a minimum of fuss and Les Bleus were ahead. The game was 31 seconds old.
Worse was to come. Far worse. Even though Owen Farrell cut the deficit with a right-sided penalty four minutes or so after that desperate opening exchange, one of the men who did most to give him the opportunity, Jonny May, failed to survive the attack. The Gloucester wing with the fastest feet in the west made good ground with some trademark shimmying but ended up with a smashed nose for his trouble. Off he went; on came Alex Goode, the Saracens full-back. Goode may be many things but he is no one’s idea of a sprinter. England had lost the quickest man in their ranks.
Three minutes after May’s departure, an otherwise impressive England line-out routine went scruffy on them and Jean-Marc Doussain knocked over a penalty from the resulting chaos. Then, Huget struck again, in a fashion almost as comical as his original intervention. Tom Wood, operating with his usual ferocity but uncharacteristically vulnerable to fumbles in contact, lost the ball to Alexandre Flanquart, the beanpole French lock, and when Huget held off a flailing Goode tight to the right touchline and found Brice Dulin in support, the visitors were in a rare old mess. Dulin chipped just before he was wiped out by Brown, the ball evaded the two retreating red rose defenders and Huget completed the score.
England needed something – anything – to happen for them and Wood went in search of it in time-honoured fashion, clattering Plisson late and holding the outside-half on the floor. This had the desired effect of starting a mass bout of pushing and shoving (in the old days, it would have sparked a conflagration) and it showed that the visitors meant business. Doussain stretched the French lead with a second penalty a few seconds later, but the visitors were at least beginning to find some purchase on proceedings.
Their reward came five minutes from the break when Danny Care played his ace card with a tap-and-go scuttle into the Tricolore 22 and watched joyously as the ball was worked left through Vunipola to Brown, who wrestled the ball down at the flag. This was exactly the emotional lift England craved, at the moment they needed it most. The game shifted on its psychological axis and it was clear the second period would unfold very differently.
Vunipola, aided and abetted by Care and Farrell, was the man who ensured it did so. Time and again the young bullock of a back-rower broke multiple French tackles to give his colleagues opportunities to attack and the half was not very old when he burst away from Yannick Nyanga and Mathieu Bastareaud before freeing Luther Burrell to the line for a first-cap try with an underarm flick out of contact. Farrell, increasingly influential, landed the straightforward conversion and England were ahead for the first time.
But Vunipola had played himself out while Care, who added a cheeky drop goal while playing a penalty advantage on 65 minutes, was beginning to blow hard. England rung the changes off the bench and this gave France a chance to regroup. Maxime Machenaud and Goode exchanged penalties before Nyanga, so dangerous in broken field, launched one last mighty attack down the right. The ball was spun back into centre field, then to Dimitri Szarzewski, who picked an excellent line, and finally to Fickou, who stepped Goode and finished behind the sticks to allow Machenaud the easiest of deal-clinching conversions.
France: B Dulin (Castres); Y Huget (Toulouse), M Bastareaud (Toulon), W Fofana (Clermont Auvergne), M Medard (Toulouse); J Plisson (Stade Francais), J-M Doussain (Toulouse); T Domingo (Clermont Auvergne), B Kayser (Clermont Auvergne), N Mas (Castres), A Flanquart (Stade Francais), P Pape (Stade Francais, capt), Y Nyanga (Toulouse), B le Roux 9Racing Metro), L Picamoles (Toulouse).
Replacements: A Burban (Stade Francais) for Le Roux h-t; D Szarzewski (Racing Metro) for Kayser 43; Y Maestri (Toulouse) for Flanquart 43; Y Forestrier (Castres) for Domingo 48; R Slimani (Stade Francais) for Mas 48; M Machenaud (Racing Metro) for Doussain 56; D Chouly (Clermont Auvergne) for Picamoles 65; G Fickou (Toulouse) for Bastareaud 74.
England: M Brown (Harlequins); J Nowell (Exeter), L Burrell (Northampton), W Twelvetrees (Gloucester), J May (Gloucester); O Farrell (Saracens), D Care (Harlequins); J Marler (Harlequins), D Hartley (Northampton), D Cole (Leicester), J Launchbury (Wasps), C Lawes (Northampton), T Wood (Northampton), C Robshaw (Harlequins, capt), B Vunipola (Saracens).
Replacements: A Goode (Saracens) for May 7; M Vunipola (Saracens) for Marler 51; T Youngs (Leicester) for Hartley 57; L Dickson (Northampton) for Care 60; B Barritt (Saracens) for Nowell 65; B Morgan (Gloucester) for B Vunipola 65; D Attwood (Bath) for Lawes 67;
Scorers: France – Tries: Huget 2, Fickou. Conversion: Machenaud. Penalties: Doussain 2, Machenaud. England – Tries: Brown, Burrell. Conversion: Farrell. Penalties: Farrell 2, Goode. Drop goal: Care.
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales)
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