Six Nations 2018: Ireland seal title after France defeat sorry England in bruising ‘Le Crunch’

France 22 England 16: Eddie Jones’ team finally lose their Six Nations Championship crown to Ireland with agonising defeat in Paris

England's Six Nations hopes went up in smoke
England's Six Nations hopes went up in smoke

England have a proud and often-stated ambition of becoming the number-one team in the world, but they are not even top dogs in Europe this season, after losing their Six Nations Championship title to Ireland with this agonising defeat in Paris.

Owen Farrell’s team kept attacking to the final whistle, and may even have nicked a victory in added time, but it would not have been with the try-scoring bonus they knew they needed at the start of play to keep their hopes of a record third successive Six Nations title alive into next Saturday’s final round of matches.

England could finish as low as fifth in the table depending on the concluding results, and this is already the first time they have lost two matches in a row since Eddie Jones took over as head coach after the 2015 World Cup.

France celebrate their victory

There will be alarms bells mixed with siren calls for England to shake up their back row, although Jones cannot be blamed for repeated injuries to the young pretenders Sam Underhill, Sam Simmonds and Tom Curry.

And if your ideas of England’s best attacking threequarters are Jack Nowell and Elliot Daly, those two, also, have spent big chunks of the season on the treatment table.

Maybe last summer’s Lions tour followed by a relentless club schedule has tired some players out; maybe the pressure of keeping a winning run of 22 in 23 matches under Jones before this Championship has made some buckle.

In the short term, England will host Ireland at Twickenham on St Patrick’s Day in the very rare position of playing to deny their opponents the Grand Slam.

Mathieu Bastareaud of France celebrates

The champions of 2016 and 2017 chose not to start with the kind of all-out attack they used against France in a memorable 55-35 win three years ago.

Instead the early chances for points from penalty kicks were accepted by Farrell, the new captain, and clearance kicks were favoured over wild running from the visitors’ own 22.

Farrell, the skipper in the absence of the injured Dylan Hartley, Daly and Farrell again booted penalties of medium to super-long range, as England forced the French into collapsing scrums twice and also brought off three initial line-out steals through Joe Launchbury, Maro Itoje and Nathan Hughes.

But France piled into breakdowns effectively at the other end of the field, and with three penalty goals knocked over by scrum-half Maxime Machenaud – the third of them for a high tackle by Itoje on Benjamin Fall - they were level at 9-9 at half-time.

England could finish as low as fifth

Remy Grosso’s no-arms clear-out that rocked Courtney Lawes back at a ruck was surprisingly missed by the officials, while Hughes’s left knee gave away, to bring Simmonds into the fray at No.8.

But England were sadly unable to unleash the clever combinations that might have opened France up.

There were no loop plays or snappy passes in two or threes to find a weak French shoulder or create a defensive dog-leg for the high-speed back three of Anthony Watson, Daly and Jonny May to exploit.

A scrum on the French 22-metre line a minute before the break, with a huge open side, was a great opportunity to attack, but after three resets, an effort by Daly to raid infield from his left wing did not end with England getting over the gainline.

The result confirmed Ireland as champions

The bonus-point format will come under scrutiny, with Ireland enjoying three home matches to England’s two, and it has given extra reward to strong performances by the new champions.

Either way, Sean Cronin’s try from a line-out for Ireland in the 69th minute of their win over Scotland earlier today had left Farrell’s team 10 points adrift in the Championship table, and knowing they needed two bonus-point wins, while denying Ireland anything and making up a shortfall in for-and-against points difference, to keep their Six Nations crown.

France had second place at best to play for, although that would be their highest finish since 2011. And of course the small matter of turning over ‘Les Rosbifs’.

Out of the ashes of several lean years in the Six Nations, and the dropping of eight players after last month’s night out in Edinburgh, the French have been beaten very narrowly by Ireland and Scotland, and now won against Italy and England.

Owen Farrell of England looks dejected

England’s breakdown woes in this Championship were crystallised in the heavy loss to Scotland at Murrayfield two weeks ago.

The second half began with an attacking line-out for England, but rumbling carries by Mako Vunipola, Dan Cole and Launchbury were missing a cutting-edge offload and ended with Mathieu Bastareaud’s turnover.

France then sprang an attack which brought a controversial penalty try and a sin-bin yellow card to full-back Watson.

Gulihem Guirado carried from a line-out before fly-half Francois Trinh-Duc launched a cross-kick contested by May and Remy Grosso on England’s right wing. As the ball came down, Fall gathered and Watson tackled the diving wing with an arm over the Frenchman’s shoulder.

Jonny May's late try was not enough

Fall was on his way to earth anyway but South African referee Jaco Peyper decided after use of video replays to send Watson off for 10 minutes and trot to the posts to award the seven-pointer that put France 16-9 up with 47 minutes gone.

Another great England position was frittered away by a line-out tap-back ricocheting off Danny Care’s leg, before Machenaud swept over a 40-metre penalty conceded by replacement James Haskell.

Another steal by Itoje led to a belated England try, with seven minutes remaining, as Farrell, now at fly-half, flung a long pass to Daly who brilliantly flicked the ball inside for May to collect his 13th Test try.

Farrell landed a superb conversion but a bonus point for losing by a narrow margin was not what England had come for, and a bitterly disappointing evening lurched for the worse with a penalty conceded on the floor and converted by French substitute Lionel Beauxis to a backdrop of wild Parisian celebrations.

Beauxis made a howler of a missed touch after an England overthrow but the batterings of Kyle Sinckler and others were held out by France with that man Bastareaud helping force the match-ending knock-on.

Scorers:

  • France: try: penalty try; penalties: Machenaud 4, Beauxis.
  • England: try: May; conversion: Farrell; penalties: Farrell 2, Daly.
  • France: H Bonneval (rep G Fickou 15th min-24; 41); B Fall, M Bastareaud, G Doumayrou, R Grosso; F Trinh-Duc (L Beauxis 71), M Machenaud (B Couilloud 71); J Poirot (D Priso 66), G Guirado (capt; A Pelissie 66), R Slimani (C Gomes Sa 58), P Gabrillagues, S Vahaamahina (B le Roux 66), W Lauret (K Galletier 66), Y Camara, M Tauleigne.
  • England: A Watson (M Brown 68); J May, B Te’o, O Farrell (capt), E Daly; G Ford (J Joseph 60), D Care (R Wigglesworth 68); M Vunipola (J Marler 64), J George (L Cowan-Dickie 64), D Cole (K Sinckler 58), J Launchbury (J Haskell 53), M Itoje, C Lawes, C Robshaw, N Hughes (S Simmonds 24).
  • Referee: J Peyper (South Africa).

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