Tries: Barkley, Lewsey
Cons: Hodgson 2
Pens: Yachvili 6
Dimitri Yachvili's fighting weight may be somewhere in the region of 83 kilograms, which makes him international rugby's equivalent of a seven-stone weakling, but the scrum-half from Biarritz spent much of yesterday afternoon kicking sand in English faces. He should not have been able to kick anything at all, given the strength-sapping conditions at Twickenham and the matchstick legs bestowed upon him by his genes, yet this single-point victory for France - their first championship success in London since 1997 - was entirely down to Yachvili's virtuosity in the left boot department.
But England did not have a boot of any description - at least, not one on which they could rely. Charlie Hodgson, the outside-half from Sale whose fondest wish is to play well enough to make the endless comparisons with Jonny Wilkinson redundant, managed to realise 50 per cent of that ambition by proving once and for all that he and his predecessor in the No 10 shirt are very different animals. Sadly for him, this was achieved not by performing brilliantly, but by suffering the torments of hell. Hodgson did some good things - he generally does, for he is a footballer of wit and vision - but at the important moments, he messed up.
He split the goal-kicking duties with Olly Barkley, the Bath centre, and the statistics will for ever show that neither of them were capable of hitting a barn door with a banjo. But Barkley's failures, two shortly before the interval and a third midway through the final quarter, were from distances bordering on the epic.
Hodgson's were nowhere near as acceptable. The penalty he miscued from close range on the half-hour - Pepito Elhorga, a Tricolore full-back so hilariously vulnerable he might have been dreamed up by Jacques Tati, had deliberately hurled the ball into touch to save himself a ragging from the England wings - was expensive enough. The drop goal he fluffed at the death cost his side everything.
Between them Hodgson and Barkley let 21 points slip from their grasp. Yachvili, meanwhile, landed three-pointers from every angle known to geometry, and from the furthest-flung areas of the field - from 50-odd metres towards the right touch-line, from 40-plus metres wide out on the left. When he missed, it was from three-wood rather than nine-iron territory, and even then, it was not by much.
England must have known he was in the groove when, after 23 minutes, he bounced a mighty effort off the left upright. As a sighter, it was as disturbing to red rose eyes as it was impressive.
The fact that the world champions, subject as they are to the law of diminishing returns and desperate for an upturn in fortunes, let this one drift away before their home audience will make them spit nails. They played reasonably well up front, particularly in the loose, and tackled magnificently - none more so than Jamie Noon, operating in his natural habitat of outside-centre after an ill-advised flirtation with the inside position in Cardiff eight days previously.
The Newcastle midfielder clattered the fragile Elhorga and the distinctly un-fragile Sébastien Chabal with seismic hits early in the second half, scared the living daylights out of Damien Traille a few minutes later and forced Christophe Dominici into a panic-stricken grounding of the ball in goal as the contest churned towards its climax.
They also scored two excellent first-half tries through Barkley, who sent Noon careering past Yann Delaigue with a delightful pass before taking the return to run in from 15m, and the characteristically energetic Josh Lewsey, who breezed past Sébastien Bruno with a classically proportioned outside break and left Elhorga choking in the exhaust fumes. Hodgson landed the conversion - what fool said the age of miracles had passed? - to put England 17-6 ahead at the break.
Job done? History suggested not. Back in '97, the Twickenhamites were 14 points to the good deep in the final quarter and still contrived to lose 23-20. In 2003, they were miles in front after an hour, yet leaked two tries in the closing stages and were clinging on for dear life at the final whistle. This time, the game turned between the 50th and 51st minutes. Hodgson, his confidence shot to pieces, missed a kickable penalty that would have taken England to 20-6, and it finally dawned on the French that with just a little dynamic input from the bench, they might actually win. On came Olivier Milloud, William Servat and Yannick Nyanga, and the three of them succeeded in tipping the balance of the forward confrontation.
Suddenly, England were struggling at the set-piece, uncertain at the line-out and, with Serge Betsen in his ferocious pomp, under a mountain of pressure at ruck and maul. Yachvili took advantage of his opponents' fraying discipline to chip away at the lead - 17-9 after 55 minutes, 17-12 after an hour, 17-15 with 13 minutes of normal time left on the clock.
Finally, Betsen charged down a clearance by Barkley, Frédéric Michalak conjured something magical to retain possession and Traille charged upfield, duly luring the red rose forwards into another indiscretion on the floor. Needless to say, Yachvili applied boot to sweet spot with complete precision, bisecting the sticks from distance.
On another day, with a pack of forwards playing with Johnson-esque authority rather than mere enthusiasm, England might have pinched it when Hodgson reduced Dominici to a nervous wreck by rolling a magnificent punt towards the left corner. But his tight forwards were not quite up to completing the job. Milloud, a specialist scrummager with a face only a mother could love, got stuck into the white-shirted front row and even though Martin Corry rescued the ball on the deck, hopes of a roll-over try disappeared into the ether.
It was left to Hodgson to drop for glory; sadly, he failed to threaten the posts. No one died of shock, for it was one of those days. Worryingly for England, it is also one of those seasons.
England: J Robinson (Sale, capt); M Cueto (Sale), J Noon (Newcastle), O Barkley (Bath), J Lewsey (Wasps); C Hodgson (Sale), H Ellis (Leicester); G Rowntree (Leicester), S Thompson (Northampton), P Vickery (Gloucester), D Grewcock (Bath), B Kay (Leicester), J Worsley (Wasps), L Moody (Leicester), M Corry (Leicester). Replacements: A Hazell (Gloucester) for Corry, 66-72; B Cohen (Northampton) for Cueto, 76; M Dawson (Wasps) for Ellis, 79.
France: P Elhorga (Agen); J Marlu (Biarritz), D Traille (Biarritz), B Liebenberg (Stade Français), C Dominici (Stade Français); Y Delaigue (Castres), D Yachvili (Biarritz); S Marconnet (Stade Français), S Bruno (Sale), N Mas (Perpignan), F Pelous (Toulouse, capt), J Thion (Biarritz), S Betsen (Biarritz), S Chabal (Sale), J Bonnaire (Bourgoin). Replacements: J-P Grandclaude (Perpignan) for Marlu, 44; W Servat (Toulouse) for Bruno, 55; O Milloud (Bourgoin) for Mas, 55; Y Nyanga (Béziers) for Chabal, 55; F Michalak (Toulouse) for Delaigue, 72; G Lamboley (Toulouse) for Pelous, 88.
Referee: P O'Brien (New Zealand).
Man of the match
Dimitri Yachvili. Gave a wonderfully unorthodox performance at half-back and was pure and simple with the boot.
Moment of the match
Yachvili's 50-yard kick. The scrum-half's wide-angled penalty after 67 minutes gave the French the necessary sense of self-belief for victory.Reuse content