France clung on for Six Nations win in the face of English fightback

France’s fired-up youngsters overcome England

There were some nervy moments as the game wore on, but the exuberance of youth and an almighty physical display in the first half– particularly in defence – saw France overtake England in the Six Nations, 24-17.

Before the event, England head coach Eddie Jones promised a “violent” clash. But it was the home side, under new defensive master Shaun Edwards, who brought the edge to this contest from the start and went in at the half 17-0 to the good. For the first time since 1988, England went in at the half during a Five or Six Nations match without notching any points.

France even went to a 24-0 lead, thanks to a second score for skipper Charles Ollivon, which complemented the breakout first try from late call-in Vincent Rattez, on the wing.

Yet England came fighting back in the final third, thanks largely to two fine Jonny May tries and set-piece shambles from the hosts. May was the brightest English spark with his two five-pointers – one was a chip and chase and the other a trademark arcing run.

The comeback scores put the frighteners on some inexperienced French numbers. However, Antoine Dupont’s thundering hit on Willi Heinz to force a knock-on with three minutes to go was just the tonic jittery kids needed and England had to make do with a losing bonus point from a game-ending penalty kick from Owen Farrell.

They may have let England back into the game, but the crowd in Paris nonetheless thrummed with excitement as the home side greeted the final whistle, seven points to the good.

There were flahpoints for any defensive coach to savour, early on. When les Bleus were ahead 17-0, England tried to put the hammer down and wrestle back some momentum with 32 minutes on the clock. But France repelled a driving maul, and when the ball was eventually worked wide,  May was snared and scrum-half Ben Youngs was sucked in for a turnover.

The half ended with Gregory Alldritt – a stand-out on both sides of the game, all game – gobbling up a spilt English ball and the second half also began with French defence forcing Maro Itoje to knock on. Lock Bernard le Roux finished with 22 tackles to his name.

On offense too, skipper Ollivon was always available for an inside pass, while Dupont was a constant nuisance in attack.

The onslaught began with Teddy Thomas scything through the middle of the park, before Rattez finished it off.

The Ollivon double on either side of the half, plus the Romain Ntamack conversions ensured the healthy lead.

However, panic set in at the linoeut with Courtney Lawes interfercepts, Ollivon missed catches and poor calls allowing England a foothold. Which meant the turnovers were needed to keep the visitors at bay.

Then Dupont pounced, late on, to force England out.

The lack of experience may have shone through for the French at this point but they did enough to drag themselves over the line as “Allez les Bleus” rang out. For England, the second-half displays of substitutes Ellis Genge and Lewis Ludlum will give head coach Jones much to ponder, while the early departure of Manu Tuilagi changed England’s shape. The way France held out on their own line will concern the English too and a specialist No 8 may be something worth looking at going forward.

The Six Nations heads into round two with ravenous young France eyeing up vulnerable Italy.

The March 2020 issue of Rugby World magazine – a Six Nations special – is on sale now.

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