Underwood loses touch

Chris Hewett in Paris sees the English debutants toil for the cause
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The Independent Online
RORY UNDERWOOD suggested that England's fate was sealed in Paris yesterday fully 80 minutes before Thomas Castaignede's winning drop kick.

Underwood was denied a try in the opening seconds by the Irish referee David McHugh after his fellow wing Jon Sleightholme, making his England debut, had pursued a kick from Matt Dawson and caught France's captain Philippe Saint-Andre in possession.

England moved the ball after winning the resultant ruck and Mike Catt kicked behind the French goal-line. Emile Ntamack dithered as the ball bounced and Underwood appeared to touch it down. "I put my hand on the ball," said Underwood, who was winning his 82nd England cap, "but the referee ruled no try."

Despite the disappointment of losing a Five Nations fixture to France for the first time in eight years, England's manager Jack Rowell was encouraged. "A draw would have been a fair result, but we hoped for better when we led at half-time," he said.

By the interval, it seemed that they had tamed a Parc des Princes stadium which was even more of a bear-pit than usual. The expectant French crowd was so desperate to give England a greeting from hell that they whistled and hissed at the ballboys simply because they emerged in white tracksuits.

Five of the England side were tasting championship rugby for the first time and while the French themselves were blooding a handful of their own tiros, their collective paranoia could hardly have been as extreme.

The word on the street beforehand had been as bleak as could be - France would win by 20, perhaps more - but as events unfolded it became clear that one cool head and a single kick would decide it. That the cool head belonged to Le Petit Prince, Castaignede, himself making his tournament bow, merely rubbed salt in English wounds. He had barely touched the ball for close on 79 minutes when he took his pot-shot at glory while the English new boys had spent every last drop of sweat for the cause.

None more so than Lawrence Dallaglio, England's most eye-catching forward, and only the magnificent Abdel Benazzi overshadowed the young Wasps captain. In the contest of the golden boys, Dallaglio more than coped with the threat of Laurent Cabannes. Dallaglio lost his man only once - a typically dashing drive upfield that ended in a 62nd-minute penalty for Thierry Lacroix. Within three minutes Dallaglio made such a dent in the French defence that Paul Grayson was able to drop an equalising goal in his sleep.

After the break, England's front row, in particular Mark Regan and Graham Rowntree, were given a crash course in the harsh realities of international rugby as the French moved up several gears. Neither could have given an ounce more in the loose but the English scrum creaked so badly in the 20 minutes after half-time that Benazzi and Co had the run of the Parc.

England's captain Will Carling was protective of his newcomers. "That must be the most difficult place in the world to make a debut," he said. "The players who have come into the side have learned an enormous amount. It will stand them in good stead for the next three matches." That assumes all of them will survive. Rowell, under more pressure than ever, may decide otherwise.