"When we play England, we are a team with small balls." So said a leading chronicler of French rugby a couple of hours before kick-off on Grand Slam night in the City of Light, adding, in deeply pessimistic tones: "When we play them in the rain, we are a team with no balls at all." Whatever Marc Lièvremont's newly crowned Six Nations champions do or do not possess below the belt – it is difficult to know for sure without looking, and no one wants to raise the subject with Sébastien Chabal – there was a whole lot of shrivelling going on during a wet-weather game that took Les Bleus to the point of emasculation.
To the point, but not past it. When the blood pressure eases and the nerve-endings are restored to their unravaged state, the French may look back on this victory as the moment when their pathological fear and loathing of Anglo-Saxon rugby – that grimly functional mix of method, cohesion and discipline – was finally overcome. They beat England, by the shortest of short necks, in conditions guaranteed to give them the heebie-jeebies. Should the two teams meet again at next year's World Cup in New Zealand, where the rain never stops, they will start the match knowing that victory is not quite an impossibility.
The fact that they prevailed against an England side playing their most dynamic rugby of the tournament – Toby Flood and Ben Foden fully justified their promotions while dear old Mike Tindall made a significant contribution in keeping the destructive Mathieu Bastareaud under lock and key – will make them feel better still, although Lièvremont, their highly capable head coach, might usefully spend the next few weeks pondering the tactical paralysis that prevented his young playmakers, Morgan Parra and Francois Trinh-Duc, making the most of a magnificent scrummaging performance.
England were reduced to rubble at the set-piece: the hooker Dylan Hartley and the tight-head prop Dan Cole were both substituted at the interval, while Tim Payne struggled so badly against Nicolas Mas that he spent much of the evening staring at his own larynx. If Martin Johnson, the manager, was not entirely convinced that all the penalty calls made by the referee Bryce Lawrence in this area were correct, he did not dispute the supremacy of the French operation. "We had our problems there," he said, quietly and through gritted teeth.
He was far less accepting of an important decision late in the game that allowed the French to spend the remaining minutes deep in English territory. Foden, who had marked his first international start with a fine early try and a series of bold interventions on the counter-attack, attempted a quick line-out throw to Jonny Wilkinson, standing alone in centre field with the full range of kicking options open to him. To the full-back's acute exasperation, Lawrence declared the pass forward. Instead of setting up base in the French half and going in search of a winning drop-goal, England found themselves on the defensive.
"Bryce gave it 'not straight', and I wanted to know how 'not straight' he thought it was," Johnson said when asked about his approach to the officials moments after the final whistle. And the answer? "I didn't get an answer," the manager replied. "They just shrugged their shoulders. I'm a little annoyed about a few things, to be honest with you. That was a tight game, and there were some big, big calls made out there."
One of Johnson's own calls was to run the debutant Chris Ashton on the left wing, a position entirely new to him, rather than the right wing, from where he has been scoring tries by the bucketload since joining Northampton from rugby league in the middle of 2007. The manager was sticking to his guns after the game – "We do think about these things, you know, and we see him as a left wing" – but for much of the first half, Trinh-Duc made the newcomer's life a misery with a series of cleverly weighted, perfectly angled kicks from hand. Even in the second half, when Trinh-Duc's radar went haywire and England looked the more threatening side, the relocation backfired. Played into space with only Clement Poitrenaud ahead of him, he chose to chip the full-back rather than test him with his footwork. Had he been in more familiar territory, he would surely have made a better decision.
Still, there was much to admire from Ashton, even though he spent the small hours kicking himself black and blue over that lost opportunity. His scoring delivery to Foden as early as the fourth minute was a gem – indeed, the whole move was spot-on, with Simon Shaw and the energetic Hartley smashing their way "up the guts" and Flood firing a long and beautiful pass off his right hand after sensing that an injury to Poitrenaud had left the French short of numbers out wide – and there were other tantalising hints of a God-given instinct granted only to rugby's tiny minority of natural footballers.
Flood, Ashton, Foden ... their performances led Johnson to suggest that the rain, seriously heavy at times, affected England more than it did France. This was over-egging it just a little. The Tricolore game, based around the off-loading skills of their multi-skilled forwards and the bewildering brand of close passing perfected by the likes of Parra and Poitrenaud, was washed away by the downpour, to the extent that the home side ended up playing like England at their least imaginative. They had other problems, too, particularly an early injury to the exceptional Imanol Harinordoquy that rendered the Basque No 8 almost wholly ineffective. Had Thierry Dusautoir, the French captain, had an off-night, England would have edged the argument and claimed another of their regular runner-up finishes in a tournament they have not won since 2003. Unfortunately for them, Dusautoir's off-nights are about as frequent as the appearances of Halley's Comet above Paris. The flanker from Ivory Coast is one of the players of the age: he would walk into the New Zealand team, demand a place in the Springbok back-row and be granted Wallaby status before negotiating passport control. England would kill for him, as would every other team north of the Equator. On Saturday, he reminded us of all this and more.
When things became difficult for the French – and at times, the going was very hard indeed – Dusautoir held them together with his tireless tackling and the quiet, cold-eyed ferocity of his work at close quarters. One mighty hit on Lewis Moody early in the second half brought England's brightest attacking period to a decisive close and gave the more discombobulated of his colleagues some time to unscramble their minds. Asked if the skipper had played the decisive hand, Lièvremont responded with a nonchalant shrug and three little words: "Yes. As always."
England do not have a Dusautoir, or anything like him: the nearest equivalent is the Irish forward Stephen Ferris, but at this stage he is no better than Dusautoir-lite. For all their frailties and fragilities here, France deserved their third "Grand Chelem" in nine years. Their captain, neither frail nor fragile, deserved it more than anyone.
France: Penalties Parra 3; Drop goal Trinh-Duc. England: Try Foden; Conversion Flood; Penalty Wilkinson.
France: C Poitrenaud (Toulouse); M Andreu (Castres), M Bastareaud (Stade Francais), Y Jauzion (Toulouse), A Palisson (Brive); F Trinh-Duc (Montpellier), M Parra (Clermont Auvergne); T Domingo (Clermont Auvergne), W Servat (Toulouse), N Mas (Perpignan), L Nallet (Racing Metro), J Pierre (Clermont Auvergne), T Dusautoir (Toulouse, capt), J Bonnaire (Clermont Auvergne), I Harinordoquy (Biarritz). Replacements: D Marty (Perpignan) for Bastareaud 50; D Szarzewski (Stade Français) for Servat 53; J-B Poux (Toulouse) for Domingo 56; S Chabal (Racing Metro) for Pierre 61; A Lapendry (Clermont Auvergne) for Harinordoquy 64; J Malzieu (Clermont Auvergne) for Andreu 78.
England: B Foden (Northampton); M Cueto (Sale), M Tindall (Gloucester), R Flutey (Brive), C Ashton (Northampton); T Flood (Leicester), D Care (Harlequins); T Payne (Wasps), D Hartley (Northampton), D Cole (Leicester), S Shaw (Wasps), L Deacon (Leicester), J Worsley (Wasps), L Moody (Leicester, capt), N Easter (Harlequins). Replacements: T Palmer (Stade Français) for Shaw 16; S Thompson (Brive) for Harley h-t; D Wilson (Bath) for Cole h-t; M Tait (Sale) for Tindall 53; J Wilkinson (Toulon) for Flutey 65; J Haskell (Stade Français) for Worsley 68.
Referee: B Lawrence (New Zealand).
Campaign notes: The best and worst of England
Ben Foden: It was a long time coming, but the Northampton full-back’s first start at international level was wholly successful. A counter-attacker of rich potential.
Mark Cueto: The Sale wing held a shaky back three together over the first four rounds of the tournament and performed superbly in a reshaped unit in Paris.
Dan Cole: Forget the trauma of Grand Slam night. Cole’s hard-bitten performances in the front row marked him out as an England regular for the long-term.
Delon Armitage: A long way out of form after injury, he tried to do too much too soon and paid the price. Poorly handled by the selectors.
Riki Flutey: Deeply disappointing. The man who was meant to make things happen in the England midfield barely fired a shot in anger. Too anonymous by half.
Steve Borthwick: Outstanding in the victory over Wales, but not at his most decisive in the line-out thereafter. Tom Palmer’s reappearance could spell trouble.