England took a great leap forward towards the RBS 6 Nations 2011 Championship, and kept alive their hopes of a Grand Slam in the process, as they put on a brilliant second half performance to defeat France 17-9 in Twickenham on Saturday 26th February 2011.
England started the match full of the confidence of a team which has been scoring freely to date in the competition, and their pack put on a perfectly timed shove in the first scrummage against the head, causing the France forwards to drop the scrum: penalty England. Toby Flood provided the three points.
France, however, hit back with a penalty of their own almost directly from the restart, in a pattern that was set to continue throughout the first half: England threatened to produce dangerous moves in the backs, by offloading repeatedly and moving the ball well, but could only produce another couple of Flood penalties for their efforts as, more often than not, the ball went to ground at some point in the greasy conditions.
France kept in touch thanks to England’s ill-discipline at the break-down, the second French penalty came from Nick Easter’s over-eager scoop back of the ball with a big paw from the ground, when France would have been in trouble had a player legally rucked over.
The first half finished at 9-9 with France having only produced one move of substance: a mesmerising, mazy run from the left winger the French know affectionately as “the chicken” Vincent Clerc, which, unfortunately for France, ended with a pass which landed in touch, when a try-scoring opportunity could have developed.
In the second half, man-of-the-match Tom Palmer produced what could be deemed the turning point of the game, straight from Flood’s restart, when he raced up the field to charge down France’s attempted clearing kick. England won the ball soon after, deep in France’s 22, and a couple of quick-passes, and one strong straight-arm handoff from Foden saw him power over the line through three men for a vital try, right in the corner.
Flood missed the conversion, his only miss of the day, from the difficult angle: 14-9.
England saw Chris Ashton doing his swallow dive between the posts ten minutes later following another move, but the play was pulled back – quite rightly – to a Flood forward pass earlier in the move.
Another try was disallowed when captain Mike Tindall met the ball with pace and power in France’s 22 and did not appear to be held at the tackle, however, referee George Clancy made the call that Tindall should have released, to deny another touchdown for the hosts, who were outperforming France across the whole pitch, in particular in the front eight, where England were counter-rucking effectively winning a good deal of turnover ball.
When France did win possession back, England’s pressure invariably led to errors, most usually a handling error as France knocked on a number of times. That being said, but for the bounce of the ball, France would have had at least one try in the second half, as Yoann Huget races onto a grubber which was just near the line. As the player slid in to grab the ball and touch it down, it popped up into his shoulder and went forwards for a knock on, when a try seemed the more likely outcome.
On either wing, too, France pounced upon England ball spillages and fly-hacked forwards, only, on the right hand side, to see a slide tackle more accustomed to other forms of football, and, on the left, for Francois Trinh-Duc to see his kick, with nobody at home at full-back, spin agonisingly into touch.
The one worry for England will be the injury that Toby Flood picked up midway through the second half, however, to illustrate the absurd riches they possess at 10 in the kicking department, Wilkinson came on to immediately knock over a fairly difficult penalty as his first action, to take the margin to a crucial eight points.
In retrospect, England could have had three tries or more in a second half which they dominated: France’s chances were nothing more than half-chances, and England had three lion’s share of territory and possession. France, towards the end, needing eight points to draw level, looked increasingly short of ideas, as their every effort was regularly snuffed out by good English defence, and then, often, the ball was counter-rucked away, or dropped forwards.
The margin could easily have been greater come the end of the match, though it could equally have been much closer, too, as France missed a penalty in either half – in the second period, their best chance of points from a pointless half was a kick which hit the upright.
As if to prove the main reason why England had the edge in this match, when the ball rebounded off the post, England’s captain Mike Tindall clutched it moments before taking a crushing tackle. Despite being smashed in arguably the biggest hit of the afternoon, Tindall had the presence of mind to not only retain the ball, but to set it back and start again, as his forwards provided another solid ruck.
England face Scotland in the next match at Twickenham, then they travel to Dublin for a match against Ireland which could well have historic consequences.
Against France, England met their sternest test to date, in the first half particularly. In coming through the match despite having under-performed for 40 minutes, they showed that they are developing into a real rugby team: it had been England who gave away the advantage in a drawn first half; it was England who won this match with a superb performance in the second period.
England now lead the RBS 6 Nations 2011 with three wins from three. They have completed 60% of a Grand Slam in fine style. Although Martin Johnson, after the match, quite rightly dispelled talk of a Slam, the manner of this victory against France certainly suggests that it is on the cards, if his confident squad can carry the momentum forward to the next two matches.
France, who have looked a little out-of-sorts since the Autumn, must try to find the element that has been missing: they look to be short of one inspirational player in both forwards and backs to quite match the best in the world at present, though they remain a very dangerous rugby team, nonetheless.
England v France – RBS 6 Nations 2011 – Points Breakdown
|Flood 3, Wilkinson||Yachvili 3|