The French reign drop by drop

Five Nations' Championship: Castaignede casts a spell at the death as England show heart but lack ambition
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France 15 England 12

Pens: Lacroix 35, 64, 76 Pens: Grayson 29, 40

Drops: Lacroix 55 Drops: Grayson 66, 78

Castaignede 80

ENGLAND'S odyssey in Paris has come to an end. It was good while it lasted - sometimes it was even fun - but now it is over and, despite the visitors' intense disappointment at losing a match they appeared to have saved in the very last minute, there can be no regrets. This England side, by no means the best to play here since the winning sequence began six years ago, went down with dignity and a certain amount of honour, although so narrow was their ambition and so unresponsive were the French to the few opportunities which came their way that one fears for the future of the game as mass entertainment.

It was more like a shooting gallery than a rugby ground, with efforts at goal being aimed from all parts of the field. No fewer than seven drop- kicks were attempted in a mind- numbingly mediocre second half. Paul Grayson, who once again can take great satisfaction from a job competently done and who scored all England's points, was successful with two penalties and two drop goals, one of them from 40 yards. He also hit the post with a third drop goal effort. Thierry Lacroix, his opposite number, had a less satisfactory strike rate, but he had many more opportunities, which bore testimony to the increasing control that France exercised as the game progressed.

But it was Thomas Castaignede who hit the bull's eye with his drop goal a minute from time ending a bewildering five-minute scoring sequence at the end of the game when Lacroix with a penalty, Grayson with his second drop goal and finally Castaignede rekindled the embers of a match that appeared to be dying on its feet.

Philippe Carbonneau, the smallest player on the field but the greatest hearted, kicked for position. Philippe Saint-Andre and Abdel Benazzi clattered into Jon Sleightholme and from the ruck Castaignede dropped the goal. It was nothing to write home about as a kick, but it was a beautiful sight for the French crowd.

France were worth their victory, if only because they at least tried to break free from the suffocating clinches in the tight. Towards the end of the first half, the good offices of the two best forwards on the field, Benazzi and Olivier Roumat, switched the point of their attack from the fringes of the scrum and maul to the English midfield. There they set about testing the quality of the defence. Whenever the French succeeded in moving the ball, which they did crisply and at pace, they looked menacing, but a combination of rank carelessness, stout English defence and some bewildering refereeing denied them continuity and fluency.

In the end they settled for the more direct and more prosaic route ahead through the kicking of Lacroix. His towering efforts showered down on Mike Catt as they played the percentages rather than the game that comes so infuriatingly naturally to them. For once they could not point to a lack of possession as an excuse. They won lashings of it, the best of which came from England's lamentable line-out throwing.

The twin menace of Martin Johnson and Martin Bayfield was therefore crucially blunted, as was the English scrummage in the second half. Tiredness was perhaps the reason, but whatever it was there can be no doubt that England's forward momentum fell away badly in the second half.

England's reversion to their old ways requires them to take their chances and yesterday they were at their most profligate. Twice during the first half they missed glorious opportunities to score, the best falling to Catt after the committed Sleightholme had upended Saint-Andre. Ben Clarke made ground, as did Will Carling, who switched with Rory Underwood. In days gone by the wing would have been salivating at the prospect of finishing off such a move, but Underwood has lost that edge. Instead of going flat out for the line himself, he popped the ball to Catt who somehow, with the line at his mercy, lost control of the ball and the best chance of the match.

Catt is going through a dismal spell and badly needs a good game to regain his confidence. His kicks out of defence, which almost invariably came back to him through Emile Ntamack, were a major cause of concern to England's defence.

But both England's half-backs had their moments. Matt Dawson seemed to kick many more times than he passed, which is not something he does instinctively but on this occasion he did it well. His kicks, particularly early on when they were wickedly directed down the right hand touchline, gave Sleightholme the perfect introduction to international rugby. He certainly made his presence felt, first on Jean-Luc Sadourny who later had to leave the field and then on Saint-Andre, who has seldom played so ineffectively. It was that kind of game, tight, taut and brutal. Nothing asked, nothing given and very little to enjoy.

France: J L Sadourny (Colomiers); E Ntamack (Toulouse), R Dourthe (Dax), T Castaignede (Toulouse), P Saint-Andre (Montferrand, capt); T Lacroix (Dax), P Carbonneau (Toulouse); M Perie (Toulon), J M Gonzalez (Bayonne), C Califano (Toulouse), O Merle (Montferrand), O Roumat (Dax), A Benazzi (Agen), L Cabannes (Racing Club), F Pelous (Dax). Replacement: P Bernat- Salles (Begles) for Sadourny, 53.

England: M Catt; J Sleightholme (both Bath), W Carling (Harlequins, capt), J Guscott (Bath), R Underwood (Leicester); P Grayson, M Dawson (both Northampton); G Rowntree (Leicester), M Regan (Bristol), J Leonard (Harlequins), M Johnson (Leicester), M Bayfield (Northampton), S Ojomoh (Bath), L Dallaglio (Wasps), B Clarke (Bath). Replacement: D Richards (Leicester) for Clarke, 19-27.

Referee: M McHugh (Ireland).

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