Revenge spiced by a taste of real France

France 24 England 21
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The Independent Online

It is, admittedly, a trifle early to start laying down markers for the 2007 World Cup but France, who will host the next global showpiece, derived an unusually large measure of satisfaction from this result last night.

It is, admittedly, a trifle early to start laying down markers for the 2007 World Cup but France, who will host the next global showpiece, derived an unusually large measure of satisfaction from this result last night.

England did exceptionally well to camouflage a score line which in no way reflected France's nocturnal superiority. Thus France secured their fourth Grand Slam in eight years, taking the trophy from England who were demoted to third in the championship table with Ireland ­ who finished runners-up for the third time in the last four years ­ having already won the Triple Crown in Dublin.

The French have been waiting four long months to help erase the memory of their 24-7 defeat by Martin Johnson's England in the semi-final of the World Cup on a rainy night in Sydney. On that occasion Jonny Wilkinson kicked all England's points but, of course, the red rose outfit are without their World Cup hero, who is recovering from a neck and shoulder operation.

They say that revenge is a dish best served cold. Not so. It is les rosbifs who were well done on a spring evening in Paris at the end of the longest day in the history of the Six Nations' Championship.

And the player who earned the Michelin stars here was Dimitri Yachvili, the second choice scrum-half who was promoted only because of an injury to Jean-Baptiste Ellisalde.

Yachvili, who once plied his trade with Gloucester, was thought to be, at least by England the weakest part of the French armoury. In the event he contributed 19 points, a match-winning total, with a try, a conversion and four penalties.

Olly Barkley, on his first tango in Paris added 11 points to the 16 he scored against Wales, but enjoyed nothing like the possession the French forwards provided for Yachvili and his partner Frédéric Michalak. Well after the After Eight mints had been served, France finally got home by a goal, a try and four penalties to a goal, a try and three penalties, but how the margin between the teams was reduced to just the three points at the end remains something of a mystery.

Sir Clive Woodward had said that France had been saved from greater humiliation in that World Cup semi-final by the rain that fell in Sydney. The fact is that England were saved from a more severe mauling last night by the stubbornness of their defence and some poor French handling after the Tricolores had enjoyed a magnificent first half.

With the French pack successfully employing the rolling maul, England soon found themselves on the back foot and when their defence allowed a Michalak chip ahead to bounce close to their line, it almost led to a try for Christophe Dominici.

When the England scrum were put under tortuous pressure in the 17th minute, the conceded a penalty which Yachvili stroked over. It was the overture to an inspiring night for the little scrum-half. For his next trick he put in a beautifully judged cross-kick to the right hand corner. Although this is a well rehearsed French move there was not an Englishman present when the No 8, Imanol Harinordoquy, gathered the ball for a simple touch down.

After Matt Dawson had fallen offside as he attempted to catch his opposite number, Yachvili responded by landing the resultant penalty to give France an 11-0 lead after 23 minutes.

Yachvili and Barkley, who had narrowly failed with a long-range kick in the second minute, exchanged penalties which left France 14-3 ahead. But a few minutes before half time England suffered another sucker punch which left them on the ropes, if not the canvas.

Taking possession 25 yards from the England line, Yachvili, showing terrific vision, put in a neat grubber kick down the left flank and again England were cruelly exposed as the scrum-half followed through, accepted a nice little bounce and dived over. To make matters worse for Lawrence Dallaglio and his team, Yachvili added the conversion to give France a 21-3 lead at the interval.

Again Barkley and Yachvili exchanged penalties at the opening of the second half, England conceding another three points for illegally pulling down another rolling maul. However, Yachvili's momentous night suffered a hiccup when he was caught in possession, his resultant poor pass putting Michalak under undue pressure.

Steve Borthwick, who had come on midway through the first half for the injured Danny Grewcock, won the ball and this time it was the French defence who were caught off balance. With space on the left Mike Catt, who had just come on as a replacement for the out of form Will Greenwood, threw out a long pass to the unmarked Ben Cohen and the left wing crossed for his 29th Test try. This was not the prelude to an England comeback.

Instead, normal service was resumed for France, who continued to control the game, particularly at the set-piece, where their line-out was untouchable and their scrum as solid as a rock. France were presented with a kickable penalty after the English scrum again found itself in trouble but this time Yachvili was off target.

Dominici came within a matter of feet of scoring in the right-hand corner and for a 15-minute spell England barely emerged from their own 22.

Nevertheless, they weathered the battering and somehow lifted themselves to score 10 points in the space of four minutes, a sequence that came as a considerable jolt to the French system.

In the 71st minute Barkley, to a crescendo of booing, kicked his third penalty to make it 24-14 and in the 75th minute Josh Lewsey, receiving his first decent pass of the night, handed off Michalak and brilliantly surged to touchdown in the right-hand corner.

Barkley's excellent conversion made it 24-21 and suddenly it might have crossed England's minds that their fourth Six Nations title in five years was there for the taking. Not quite. England did not threaten again. And justice, like revenge, was duly served.

France 24 England 21

Tries: Harinordoquy, Tries: Cohen, Lewsey

Yachvili

Con: Yachvili Con: Barkley

Pens: Yachvili 4 Pens: Barkley

Half-time: 21-3 Attendance: 80,000

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