England and France prove the future is bright in raucous Six Nations finale

France 33-31 England: A jumping crowd helped France edge a captivating contest to close this year’s Six Nations

Harry Latham-Coyle
at Groupama Stadium, Lyon
Saturday 16 March 2024 23:51 GMT
France edged England in a thrilling match
France edged England in a thrilling match (AP)

A Six Nations crown will have to wait for another year for France but any talk of a revolt has been most certainly dismissed. In a tournament that threatened to descend into disaster, France ultimately finish as Ireland’s closest challengers again as Thomas Ramos’s long-range penalty in the final minute snatched victory on a riotous night in Lyon.

The spite of the rivalry meant this was never likely to be a drab championship coda but few could have expected something contested with quite so much action and animosity. It was aided by a jumping home crowd, relishing a rare chance to see the men in blue in the Six Nations, at one point making the uprights quiver with a mighty thunderclap. It was they who lifted the hosts at the last to deny England victory.

The St Patrick’s Day party will be mighty in Dublin with Andy Farrell’s side kings again, but there is something to celebrate at Twickenham and in Paris too, with both Steve Borthwick and Fabien Galthie relatively content with their efforts and confident there is more to come. England may have fallen short at the end but backed up their derailing of Ireland’s grand slam hopes with another performance of real character and confidence – though familiar first-half flaws will be of concern to their head coach.

England faced a France side packed with physicality (Getty Images)

For France, any frets over Galthie’s future or the union’s precarious financial predicament can wait for now – the French public are back behind Les Bleus. This snapped a run of three matches on home soil without a win, a thing of beauty and of beasts. The extraordinary Damian Penaud may not have found one of the three tries he needs to surpass Serge Blanco as France’s all-time men’s record holder but was magnificent throughout, while full back Leo Barre, who can also play further forward, looks like another real find. France have ridden some rough rhythms in this tournament but can still mix their own intoxicating beat.

While they had started the day with a mathematical chance of lifting the trophy, the pair’s championship ambitions were over more than an hour before kick-off, Ireland unconvincing but ultimately taking care of business against Scotland to seal back-to-back crowns. It left these two to squabble for second, a rung below where they had hoped to climb pre-championship but still achievement enough given how both France and England appeared set to tumble from the ladder after middle-round disasters.

Such was Ramos’s eagerness to get the game underway, the France fly half took his kick-off too soon, referee Angus Gardner whistling his chasers back after a false start. It reflected a France side keen to fire out of the blocks, the home side starting the faster with two meaty mauls driving England back.

Leo Barre scored one of France’s three tries (PA)

The desire for urgency encouraged the crowd along, French supporters booing George Ford’s claiming of a mark and George Furbank’s dropping to a knee. Furbank was more of a concern for England, though – a calf injury meant his night was over virtually before it had even begun, Marcus Smith reprising his World Cup role at full back 10 minutes after the start. Ford retained the kicking duties and soon slotted the first three points from a scrum penalty, though Ramos soon replied in kind after a breakdown infringement.

Nolann Le Garrec’s opening try was rather more extravagant. Having stolen England’s lineout ball at the front, France appeared to be in retreat as the scrum half swept the ball out into midfield. But Gael Fickou had spotted space in front of him, urging those inside to transfer swiftly, and the inside backs obliged. Fickou eased around the bend and connected with Barre, who dummied delightfully and found Le Garrec supporting on the inside for a coast-to-coast thing of beauty.

Nolann Le Garrec finished off a sumptuous France score (EPA)

With England keen to slow the game, France hit the accelerator. Penaud scythed between a couple of kick chasers and punted ahead, a rabbit for Louis Bielle-Biarrey to greyhound after. Only a retreating Smith’s extra burst of acceleration salvaged the situation for England.

Ramos added six more points from the tee and France’s lead began to swell. There was a sense of England playing right into the hosts’ hands with their go-slow strategy, allowing the big forward beasts time to recover and the razor-sharp backs chances to carve in transition.

The visitors needed something before the half and at last found life, exploiting the lack of defensive synergy in France’s remodelled midfield. Henry Slade’s pop at the line found Ollie Lawrence, who pushed through an open front door.

England were at least in familiar territory, trailing at the half for the fifth time this Six Nations. They re-emerged with verve and vigour, Tommy Freeman immediately eating up open pasture down the right before Sam Underhill and Ben Earl ploughed more central furrows. Lawrence once more provided the finishing touches, rather stiffer obstacles nonetheless moved aside with a punchy score from short range.

Ollie Lawrence grabbed two tries for England (Getty Images)

England were energised; France enervated. From crisp lineout ball, the brilliant Earl sashayed between two groping French defenders after neat hands at the line, Smith riding shotgun and dropped off within scampering distance of home.

The game had been turned on its head, England now eight to the good. France turned to their bench ballast to try and right the ship, four tight five forwards on at once with the waters choppy. It worked almost instantly, Peato Mauvaka and company bashing back England’s eight and creating room for Barre on the right. Soon after, the game had swung again, the electric Penaud latching on after loose ball had been half-volleyed ahead and combining with Fickou for France’s third try.

England had gone deep in the well last week and it felt a testing task to find deep reserves again. Manu Tuilagi – perhaps making a farewell appearance in white – joined Lawrence in the centres in Borthwick’s own bench powerplay and helped set a platform for Freeman to hustle in along the right touchline, Ford’s nerveless conversion nudging England in front. But there was time left for Ramos to put boot to ball and at last settle the writhing contest for good.

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