They did it! Despite spirited resistance from England, France sealed their ninth Grand Slam with a tense 12-10 victory over the men in white at Stade de France. The visitors played the best rugby of their campaign – if not the past year – but they got on the wrong side of referee Bryce Lawrence in the earlier stages of the game, and there they remained. They got just one penalty shot at goal in the entire match. Most un-English.
It’s fitting that this topsy-turvy Six Nations ended with a cultural about-turn: England got the only try via Ben Foden but France used the soggy conditions to squeeze England out of the game via the set-piece and their half-backs. It’s was the semi-final of RWC 2003 in reverse.
And it is the locals’ discipline that will be the toast of the Parisian night. Most un-French.
For all the talk of French flair, the Grand Slam was ultimately secured on the back of a defiant defensive performance and a crushingly dominant scrum.
Indeed, all it took was three penalties from Morgan Parra and a drop-goal from Francois Trinh-Duc – all in the first half – to seal victory for Les Bleus.
England were the better team in the second half but only had a Jonny Wilkinson penalty to show for it – and France held out to seal their first clean sweep since 2004.
England had arrived in Paris with a new captain, a revamped back division and a determination to spoil the French Grand Slam party. They came mighty close.
Leicester flank Lewis Moody skippered England after Steve Borthwick aggravated a knee injury in last weekend’s drab 15-15 draw with Scotland.
Wilkinson was dropped for only the third time in his career as manager Martin Johnson attempted to inject some vibrancy into England’s one-dimensional attacking game.
Toby Flood took over at fly-half, Foden was given his first England start at full-back and his Northampton team Chris Ashton made his Test debut on the wing.
France took an early lead with Trinh-Duc’s drop-goal but England’s new-look back division played with enterprise from the outset.
It took them just six minutes to click and they did so in scintillating fashion with Foden scoring his first Test try to mark an impressive full debut.
Flood whipped the ball to Riki Flutey and Ashton kept his cool under pressure and showed a deft touch to slip the scoring pass out of the tackle and Foden raced over in the corner.
England were playing with tempo and variety. Tim Payne, Dylan Hartley and even Danny Care made key yards around the fringes, the recalled Mike Tindall crashed into the French defence and the roving Cueto was a danger on both wings.
England lost Simon Shaw to what appeared to be another shoulder injury after just 15 minutes, immediately after he had conceded a penalty for diving over the top.
Parra missed that effort but made no mistake from in front of the posts after Flutey was penalised for being off his feet.
England’s vibrant start began to fade in the heavy rain as France assumed control of the first period on the back of a vastly superior kicking game – particularly from the wingers Marc Andreu and Alexis Palisson – and with a dominant scrum.
France had set the platform for Trinh-Duc’s drop-goal with a charging run from Imanol Harinordoquy after England had been penalised at the set-piece.
As it was during the first Test of the Lions tour to South Africa, the New Zealand referee was deeply unhappy with the performance of the English tighthead and penalised Dan Cole in three scrums in quick succession, and Parra needed no second invitation to open France a 12-7 half-time lead.
Given the angst on display, the visitors made changes up front during the interval, with Hartley and Cole replaced by Steve Thompson and David Wilson.
With a fresh start, England were able to inject tempo back into their attacking game and Foden almost latched onto a chip kick from Care but the ball skipped on into touch.
England stole the line-out from Harinordoquy inside the French 22 but they were driven backwards and Flood snatched a drop-goal attempt wide of the posts.
After Cueto had run the ball back – something England did so rarely at Murrayfield – Ashton attacked down the left but decided to chip ahead and was beaten to the touchdown by Clément Poitrenaud. It was the wrong option; the Saint had one man to beat and three men in support.
Harinordoquy piled forward again and Trinh-Duc was ready to slot a drop-goal when Parra inexplicably sent up a box kick inside England’s 22 and with no chasers Foden claimed it comfortably.
England had been the better side in the first 20 minutes of the second half but needed something to show for it against a defiant French defence.
Mathew Tait’s half-break was halted and Dimitri Szarzewski nicked possession back for France. Trinh-Duc cleared but Ashton decided to run the return ball.
Foden was snagged but England won a penalty just in-field from the right touchline and five metres into the French half.
Wilkinson stepped up to strike a monster of a kick and his effort dropped just over the bar and England had closed the gap.
But France closed the game out expertly and Grand Slam glory was theirs. Deservedly so, too. They are the best team in Europe by a distance right now. They possess a rampant pack full of power, a rock-solid set-piece and verve and dynamism out wide.
The same cannot be said for England. But events in Paris seem to suggest that, finally, the foundation stones are being put in place.
Man of the match: We’ve taken a stick to England over the course of this tournament, but they deserve praise for their efforts today. The back three – bar the mistake from Chris Ashton – played out of their skins, and Ben Foden has surely answered the last of his critics. But our pick of the visitors was Mike Tindall – how soon we had forgotten what an intelligent footballer he is, and how England have missed him. It was a low-key performance by France, held together by little Morgan Parra who called all the right moves at the crucial moments. It was his brains that held the English at bay.
Moment of the match: It was Ben Foden’s try, made significant by France’s reaction. French teams in the past would have gone to pieces but the class of 2010 thought their way out of what looked like a tight corner.
Villain of the match: Not much niggle from the players and it would be against the spirit of rugby to suggest referee Bryce Lawrence. Like dogs, good teams should learn what all the bizarre whistling means and react accordingly. So how about the lady in the crowd who spent the entire match baiting the man sitting behind her? Martin Johnson looked none too please with the blonde’s advances, but she was good enough to applaud Wilkinson’s late penalty, so we’ll let her off with a warning. A red-faced Raphaël Ibañez, sitting in the BBC’s booth, was later forced to admit that the lady in question was his mother-in-law. So there you have it: they are the same the world over. No award.
Pens: Parra 3
France: 15 Clement Poitrenaud, 14 Marc Andreu, 13 Mathieu Bastareaud, 12 Yannick Jauzion, 11 Alexis Palisson, 10 François Trinh-Duc, 9 Morgan Parra, 8 Imanol Harinordoquy, 7 Julien Bonnaire, 6 Thierry Dusautoir (c), 5 Julien Pierre, 4 Lionel Nallet, 3 Nicolas Mas, 2 William Servat, 1 Thomas Domingo.
Replacements: 16 Dimitri Szarzewski, 17 Jean-Baptiste Poux, 18 Sebastien Chabal, 19 Alexandre Lapandry, 20 Dimitri Yachvili, 21 David Marty, 22 Julien Malzieu.
England: 15 Ben Foden, 14 Mark Cueto, 13 Mike Tindall, 12 Riki Flutey, 11 Chris Ashton, 10 Toby Flood, 9 Danny Care , 8 Nick Easter, 7 Lewis Moody (c), 6 Joe Worsley, 5 Louis Deacon , 4 Simon Shaw, 3 Dan Cole, 2 Dylan Hartley, 1 Tim Payne .
Replacements: 16 Steve Thompson, 17 David Wilson, 18 Tom Palmer, 19 James Haskell, 20 Ben Youngs, 21 Jonny Wilkinson, 22 Mathew Tait.
Referee: Bryce Lawrence (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Alain Rolland (Ireland), Simon McDowell (Ireland)
TMO: Nigel Whitehouse (Wales)