One of the great England victories in Paris? Let us draw a deep breath and say: "Yes, damn it. Absolutely." It was not a majestic win of the runaway variety like those of the early 1990s, when the Tricolores were subjugated by a very superior red-rose vintage and left hovering on the point of collective emasculation. But there is another kind of greatness – one rooted in the triumph of hope over expectation, of resilience in the face of extreme adversity. Stuart Lancaster's team brought their new-found spirit of togetherness to bear on their hosts yesterday and reaped a just reward.
Much will be said and written about the contribution of Tom Croft, the Leicester flanker, who finally proved beyond reasonable doubt that his exceptional performance in a Lions shirt against the Springboks the best part of three years ago was neither a fluke nor unrepeatable. Croft's efforts in both defence and attack, particularly in the second half, were something to behold. Yet this was a victory forged in the fires of the set-piece by a relatively new front-row trio for whom this was a rite of passage. Alex Corbisiero, Dylan Hartley, Dan Cole ... the three of them can, and surely will, move onwards and upwards from here. Until the last few knee-clenching minutes, England led the try-count by three to nil. Then, the brilliant young centre Wesley Fofana, playing out of position on the right wing because of an injury to Vincent Clerc, took a neat pass from Morgan Parra on the short-side of a five-metre scrum and bought enough time and space from Charlie Sharples – the time measured in nanoseconds, the space in millimetres – to touch down at the flag. Parra nailed a desperately tough conversion, France were back to within two points and all hell was breaking loose.
From the restart they surged once more through Aurélien Rougerie, whose mighty midfield contest with Manu Tuilagi would finish honours even. Another try looked certain, especially when the wonderful No 8 Imanol Harinordoquy, who refuses to finish even with anyone when the English come to town and was in full warpaint again here, found himself in possession on the 22-metre line. Enter Owen Farrell, with the most important tackle of his career to date – a tackle that may remain the most important for as long as he plays this rough old game.
The young Saracens midfielder did himself a significant mischief in felling his Basque opponent, but crucially, he forced the French into attempting a match-winning drop goal earlier, and from a greater distance, than they had planned. François Trinh-Duc underclubbed his attempt, the ball dying in flight and dropping beneath the bar. Farrell was left clutching his right shoulder, yet he was still able to kick twice more: once to restart the game, once to end it. He did not have things all his own way yesterday, but when his application was questioned – not to mention his courage – he came up with the right answers.
The concluding passages of play showcased the essence of Six Nations rugby at its theatrical best, yet for a long spell in the first half, England were successful in removing the drama from the occasion. They were 11 points to the good by the end of the first quarter, thanks to tries from Tuilagi, who set sail down the right after Chris Ashton had rush-tackled the French attacking line and forced a coughing up of possession, and the full-back Ben Foden, who stretched an arm over the Tricolore line following a full-bore rampage from the outsized back-rower Ben Morgan, who swept aside Julien Bonnaire – no mean feat in itself – before delivering the niftiest of back-flip offloads from the bear's paw that passes for his left hand.
These were not any old scores. These were 24-carat beauties, scored in open field, and they doubled England's try tally for the tournament. Before yesterday, Charlie Hodgson and his chargedown routine had provided the only joy; now, anything seemed possible. The French crowd were silent, suddenly, and when the locals did pipe up again, it was to jeer their own players. Had Farrell, so secure until now, landed a straightforward penalty shot from centre field on 26 minutes, England would have had the game all but won. Instead, he hit the left upright. It was a bad miss, and Les Bleus pounced on it with all the ruthlessness they could muster.
Already on the board through a long-range penalty from Lionel Beauxis – the outside-half kicks the ball miles, if not always in the right direction – they closed the gap when, for reasons best known to themselves, Croft and Ashton took exception to Rougerie's perfectly legitimate high-ball hit on Foden a few feet from the English line. Julien Dupuy chipped over the resulting three-pointer, and when a couple of visiting forwards went off their feet at a ruck on the stroke of half-time, Beauxis smacked over another goal from distance.
What should have been a healthy 17-3 advantage was now an anaemic 14-9 nerve-jangler and, although Farrell, his radar readjusted, hit the spot from 40 metres after a high-rolling gambler's deliberate knock-on from Fofana, the contest was now as tight as a tourniquet. It became tighter still when Sharples was harshly yellow-carded for a similar sin and shortly after his return, the French, first through Parra and then through Beauxis, landed penalties to bring themselves within a single score.
It was then that Croft, whose cover-tackling exploits in the furthest-flung areas of the field had been nothing short of sensational, sensed that Farrell's intelligent long pass had opened up possibilities in a wide channel going right. He touched on the accelerator – at times like this, he is the spitting image of the young Lawrence Dallaglio – and cruised away from Harinordoquy, all the way to the line. Farrell added the extras from the touchline, crucially as it turned out, and England had restored a semblance of control.
That control evaporated just as quickly, thanks to Fofana's fourth try in as many internationals, but there was still just enough of it left to see the visitors home. And home they headed, wondering whether a successful defence of the Six Nations title may yet come to pass.
France Points England
1 Tries 3
1/1 Conversions 3/3
5/7 Penalties 1/2
0/2 Drop goals 0/0
Phases of play
6/0 Scrums won/lost 5/0
9/2 Line-outs won/lost 9/1
4 Pens conceded 11
4 Mauls won 2
17 Ruck and drive 5
69 Ruck and pass 47
172 Passes completed 100
4 Line breaks 3
26 Possession kicked 25
6 Kicks to touch 6
59/5 Tackles made/missed 111/6
10 Offloads in tackle 3
14 Total errors made 12
90 In open play 54
8 In opponents' 22 4
26 At set-pieces 18
5 Turnovers won 4
Scorers: France: Try Fofana; Conversion Parra; Penalties Beauxis 3, Dupuy, Parra. England: Tries Tuilagi, Foden, Croft; Conversions Farrell 3; Penalty Farrell.
Replacements: France M Mermoz for Clerc, 36; M Parra for Dupuy, 49; V Debaty for Poux, 49; W Servat for Szarzewski, 49; L Nallet for Maestri, 54; L Picamoles for Bonnaire, 66; F Trinh-Duc for Beauxis, 73; Poux for Mas 75.
England T Palmer for Botha, 55; P Dowson for Morgan, 62; M Stevens for Cole, 68; B Youngs for Dickson, 72; R Webber for Dowson, 73.
Referee A Rolland (Irl).