Orchestrator Jonny swaps a rhapsody for the blues

Six Nations: From ovation to aberration as Wilkinson suffers a sad, silent trek
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The Independent Online

For the second match in succession, Jonny Wilkinson was substituted. A fortnight ago, his departure was accompanied by a standing ovation at Twickenham, the sort of awed acclaim that marks the graduation of the truly great; yesterday in the Stade de France his slow trek to the touchline was greeted by a telling silence.

At least, against Ireland, Wilkinson's fury at being withdrawn was soothed by the plaudits which he knew would follow. At the Stade de France, England's perfect 10 was too drained to summon even the smallest trace of anger. Though Clive Woodward gave him the briefest of pats on the back, there was no eye contact. None was needed.

England's desperation was being played out behind them. It was not Wilkinson's fault, though few would have been brave enough to absolve such a committed team man from blame as he slumped against the advertising hoarding next to the England bench, barely able to watch the dying embers of another Grand Slam challenge.

It might take a day or two for the truth to dawn on England's frighteningly accomplished talisman. Defeat by a French side, who ran like stags and tackled themselves to a standstill, was no disgrace, not even close. In fact, if a fleeting sense of perspective can infiltrate the understandable gloom, England showed a spirit in adversity which might be more important to Woodward in the run-up to the next World Cup than any number of facile victories.

In this sort of mood, when the muse is upon them and their game is a near perfect balance of power, passing and passion, the French are unstoppable, irresistible and only the most myopic of Red Rose fans, streaming back across the Channel, would have denied the French a famous victory or forfeited the privilege to be there among a record crowd for any event at this increasingly impressive stadium.

But England's ability to claw their way back into a game which looked utterly lost after 20 minutes will also live long in the memory. Not that gallant loser is a role much favoured by the England coach or captain.

"I don't know how many times we have to go through this," said Martin Johnson, "before we learn our lesson. If you turn the ball over, they will counter-attack better than any team in the world."

Jo Maso, the French manager, had mused beforehand about the need for Les Bleus to set down some sort of a marker for their future in the Stade de France. Tradition seeped out of the bare concrete walls of the old Parc des Princes to the west. The transfer north has coincided with the renaissance of the round ball in France and the submersion of the oval. "Our supporters have not yet become involved the way they did at Parc des Princes," Maso said. "We need a famous victory."

For all bar the seventh extra minute of the first half, that is exactly what France engineered. Had they added another two tries to the pair so clinically, yet casually, wrenched from the machine-like jaws of the England defence within the first 20 minutes, no one in white shirts could have complained too loud.

If England's 40-minute rampage took the breath away at Twickenham a fortnight ago, the French suffocated the life out of the Six Nations champions in a critical first phase yesterday. Where Wilkinson saw daylight against the bemused Irish, a sea of blue filled his vision here. From first to last, England's orchestrator was given no quarter by the French back row and if the home backs came perilously close to pushing the offside laws beyond the limit at times, there was no disguising the steely purpose of their defence.

In calculating the overwhelming odds on an England victory, the sages had been so dazzled by the neon lights of England's performance against Ireland that an equally impressive run of form by Bernard Laporte's French team, which included two victories over South Africa, had largely been overlooked.

Forecasting which France will emerge from the blue corner has always been one of the many beauties of a trip to Paris. But no one could have anticipated quite how completely England would be outplayed for all bar the last minute of an extraordinary half. It was there, you felt, that England had to make their stand.

For the first time in the match, England pressed the French line. 17-0 down, a score here would create at least a semblance of doubt in the minds of the French players and their increasingly vociferoius supporters. Three times, England's scrum hovered within metres of the French line, three times they were repulsed by awesome French tackling. And with each desperate challenge, the screw turned another notch, though in the end Jason Robinson's try was not enough.

The second half became an uncoachable examination of guts and character for both teams. Dominating a game is second nature to Woodward's team, hauling themselves back is a different, and arguably more significant, art altogether, one not yet mastered by England. The more Woodward outlined their failings – loose possession, too many turn-overs, too many handling errors – the more he missed the point.

Sometimes, you just get beaten by the better team. "I was happy with the team I picked, I was happy with our preparation," he said. "We knew as soon as we saw their side that we would have to be at our best to win and we weren't."

At the final whistle, the French summoned one final ounce of energy from their battered bodies to acknowledge the delirium rolling down from the stands. Wilkinson knew the same feeling a fortnight ago, though it is not in his nature to savour such adulation. Perhaps in time he will look back and wonder where all the enjoyment went. The French will reflect on the day that they found a new home.