Parra plays cool hand behind stronger pack

Click to follow

Agincourt, Joan of Arc, the Rugby World Cups of 2003 and 2007, the 2012 Olympics... this was payback time for a history of perceived French injustices at the hands of the hated English. A French Grand Slam set up by a rousing, roaring national anthem set the scene for an emotion-charged night in which the French worked industriously to achieve their first Slam since 2004 but their fifth in 13 years.

Yet when the substitute Jonny Wilkinson landed a stunning penalty from wide out and 48 metres away, with 14 minutes left to make it 12-10, the ghosts of Sydney 2003 and Paris 2007 began to stir. Alas, it could not happen again. Yet this was England's best performance of the season by a distance.

France, so often left to curse their fortunes against Les Rosbifs, got home with a mixture of power and cunning. England lacked the tactical acumen of the French and especially the scrum-half Morgan Parra, who wisely kept the ball in front of his forwards as much as he could. Yet there were England successes on a wet Parisian night. Ben Foden, mysteriously ignored until now when it came to a starting place this season, played as if to the manner born. Spring heeled, sure of touch and a player who looked as though he knew what he was doing, the Northampton full-back had an impressive evening. Quite why the out of touch Delon Armitage was persevered with for so long, one cannot imagine.

Foden's club colleague Chris Ashton, resplendent in orange and mauve boots, was another who looked comfortable on this grandest of stages, twice being denied scores in a kick and chase over the French line. Between them, Foden and Ashton gave England a real cutting edge, running the ball back, and they engineered a brilliant fifth-minute try, made by Ashton getting into the line out wide and releasing the crucial pass with fast hands. Foden, set free, glided around the defender and slid into the corner. Toby Flood's conversion was immaculate and England led 7-3.

The French public looked dumbfounded at such finesse from England but their hunch was correct – it could not last. While Foden was thoroughly enjoying himself, taking high balls with courage and aplomb, another England youngster was finding life very different.

In days of yore, when England had a pack of forwards to terrify anyone in the world, like at the 2003 World Cup, such a downpour would have been manna from heaven. But such days are long gone and the difficulties England began to experience at the scrums became the feature of the first 40 minutes.

The tighthead prop Dan Cole was constantly penalised by the New Zealand referee, Bryce Lawrence, for collapsing scrums. It was true that Cole was finding life tough against a powerful, wily French front row. But twice the shrewd French won penalties when they refused to take the engagement. Such intricacies were beyond the compass of Lawrence, who climbed into England's many indiscretions with the relish of a tourist attacking a meal in the French capital.

At times, England tried to play too much football on the wet and slippery pitch. They had enough ball and should have kicked deep for territory, playing off line-outs deep in the French half. Instead, they tried to drive the ball on, off a series of rucks and mauls. At times, they went through seven or eight phases and made barely five metres. Yet their second-half back play was much improved.

Flood at least stood flatter than Wilkinson had done, But the captain, Lewis Moody, and Joe Worsley will never see the point of using a key to unlock a door when they can try and smash straight through it. This England side doesn't really do subtlety.

England's experience in some key positions served them well in their primary task, a damage limitation exercise. The returning Mike Tindall offered his usual defensive solidity and commitment but the moment France withdrew the ineffective Mathieu Bastareaud, Tindall's job was done and he too disappeared.

Final Six Nations table


France 5/5/0/0/135/69/10

Ireland 5/3/0/2/106/95/6

England 5/2/1/2/88/76/5

Wales 5/2/0/3/113/117/4

Scotland 5/1/1/3/83/100/3

Italy 5/1/0/4/69/137/2