France vs England match report: England seal Six Nations Grand Slam with 31-21 victory over France

England outscored France three tries to none as they completed a Six Nations clean sweep

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The Independent Online

England’s first Grand Slam in 13 years will never erase the bitter memory of being knocked out of their own World Cup just five months ago, but as a magnificent start to a new era under head coach Eddie Jones it was easily enough to have ecstatic choruses of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” ringing round Paris.

The circumstances were bizarre in another way as a groggy Dylan Hartley, the England hooker whose appointment as captain for this Six Nations was a symbolic shot at redemption by Jones after a notorious series of suspensions, returned to the field for his moment of trophy-lifting glory at the end. With 67 minutes gone, and England mad-keen to hold on to a 25-21 lead, Hartley drove low into making a tackle in the French half and appeared to be immediately knocked out. After a few minutes of medical attention, the skipper who turns 30 next week, was lifted gently onto a stretcher and taken off.

Neverthless Hartley had succeeded these England have loved as a Grand Slam winning captain in recent memory - Martin Johnson in 2003, Will Carling three times in the 1990s and dear old Bill Beaumont in 1980. This new-old team, with the galloping youngster Maro Itoje among Jones’s post-World Cup introductions, revelled in the moment, and rightly so.

France began with a clear intent to move the ball and their Fijian-born wing Virimi Vakatawa into the game, and England very early on appeared unable to generate the speed in their defensive line they might have liked. Maxime Machenaud, the France scrum-half, kicked his team into a 3-0 lead after two minutes, and would go on to strike three more beautiful penalty goals before half-time. It may be picking holes in a champion team, but at that stage England’s flankers Chris Robshaw and James Haskell were having struggles at the breakdown, conceding penalties. And you sometimes wonder watching the angles Owen Farrell runs off Jonathan Joseph whether the two centres are on the same wavelength.

Winger Anthony Watson gets on the end of Ben Youngs’ grubber kick to score England’s third try at Stade de France (PA)

But Farrell’s defence as a reluctant No.12 has been important alongside George Ford, whose selection as the starting fly-half was a fairly gutsy call for this Championship by Jones, given Ford’s iffy form for his club Bath this season. Farrell’s excellent goal-kicking has been crucial to England’s cause too. With his first five points the 24-year-old Saracen became England’s all-time second highest points scorer, passing the 400 of Paul Grayson – just the 770-odd to go now to catch up on Jonny Wilkinson. The excellent order of the Farrell boot in last weekend’s Twickenham over Wales was somewhat overlooked amid the many incidents.

Farrell quickly levelled Machenaud’s opening score, and England settled any nerves they may have felt on the threshold of history when Danny Care grabbed a lovely individual try with 11 minutes gone. The Harlequins scrum-half had already one close to a run-in, if only his club-mate Mike Brown hadn’t fired a possible scoring pass over his head after a sharp break. When France got caught without proper guards at a centre-field ruck 40 metres from their goalline, Care did not hesitate. A dab of a hand-off took him clear of the prop Jefferson Poirot and sheer pace did the rest, although it helped that France’s full-back Scott Spedding was out of position.

England’s XV had 533 caps between them  – the most experienced team side since the abject World Cup quarter-final defeat to these opponents in Auckland in 2011. It was a French win here in 2014 to consign England to one of a run of four second-placed finishes in the Six Nations.

Another indication it would be different this time was Dan Cole’s try in the 21st minutes for a lead of 17-6. The prop’s second in 61 Tests was subject to the briefest of reviews by referee Nigel Owens, with French fingers pointing at a block by Mako Vunipola on Guilhem Guirado, but Owens was not having it and Farrell’s second conversion sailed serenely over. The position had been made by a deft cross-kick from Ford to Anthony Watson, and the latter and his fellow wing Jack Nowell was constantly searching for positions to stretch the French. The Mako let-off added to the ankle twist that had removed fly-half Francois Trinh-Duc in the 14th minute contributed to an inexorable sense of white-jerseyed fortune holding sway over the blue; Care’s try had come from a slightly bungled England line-out. Then Machenaud’s clumsy knock-on in first-half added time allowed England a scrum and a penalty but Farrell missed for the first time on an angle that was as tricky as the buffeting breeze he was facing.

Ben Youngs celebrates at the full-time whistle as England win the Six Nations Grand Slam (PA)

Two penalties from Machenaud – the second against Hartley as he scrambled backwards – to one by Farrell in the opening 10 minutes of the second half had England ahead by 20-18.

Even against the serially disjointed French team of recent seasons, though, breasting the tape in the Six Nations in Paris was clearly not going to be done at a saunter. Everyone knows the sad litany of England sides stumbling with the Slam in sight – Cardiff in 2013, Dublin in 2011 and 2001, Edinburgh and Wembley, 2000 and 1999, in recent memory alone.

Chris Robshaw congratulates Dan Cole on scoring his try in Paris (Reuters)

That history looked like bunk to Watson as he cleverly stopped and then shot forward in an instant to wrongfoot the French and dot down England’s third try after 55 minutes. Billy Vunipola, another star of this Six Nations, had rumbled away from a maul and Ben Youngs, on for Care, dabbed a kind of soccer pass sideways for Watson to run on to.

Farrell’s conversion missed from wide out, and France hit back yet again with a seventh penalty by Machenaud – an individual total never conceded before by England in a Championship match.

Hartley’s injury held up play; England had to gather their thoughts and wits, with Farrell taking over as captain and landing a brilliant kick for 28-21 from 50 metres’ distance after Youngs was tackled high by replacement lock Paul Jedresiak. There were steals of the ball by George Kruis at a French line-out, and Itoje in open play. A yellow card to Xavier Chiocci and Farrell’s fourth penalty adding up to 16 points for him in the match finished it all off.