by Paul Ackford
A highly significant victory for England, one which sets them up nicely for the rest of the championship and one which may prove important at the World Cup towards the end of the year.
Why? Because England were forced to work hard for their win, to re-jig plans and personnel in the face of a determined French onslaught.
It was made more impressive because it was palpably obvious that several of England key individuals struggled.
Chris Ashton butchered a decent opportunity near the end and both half-backs failed to exert the influence they have managed in previous matches. To win in those circumstances was a major achievement.
England prevailed because their intensity was greater and lasted longer than France’s. Both teams had their moments. Aurelien Rougerie was a bounce of a ball away from a score and Mike Tindall was penalised for a double movement which might have gone unnoticed on another day.
But it was England who refused to buckle and that sheer cussedness was enough to see off France.
It has to be said also that England had the major players up front. Thierry Dusautoir was magnificent for France but at times he was fighting a lone battle against an England pack in which both locks, Tom Palmer and Louis Deacon, were outstanding, Nick Easter was his usual rumbustious self and Dan Cole and Dylan Hartley got to areas of the pitch which front row forwards had no right to inhabit.
The other major plus for fans tuning in on TV or watching live was that this was a grade one Test match. It was rough, intense and thoroughly absorbing. And France played.
Those fears that they would go all limp and wobbly as they have on previous Twickenham occasions failed to materialise. There was bite to their tackles and every scrummage and breakdown was contested with real venom.
It was by far the best contest of this Six Nations, two sides straining to hold it together as each sought to gain an advantage.
At moments like these players find out about themselves and sometimes those lessons are difficult to stomach. Toby Flood and Ben Youngs, the architects of previous England triumphs, had poor first halves.
Both tried to force plays and both were undone by the fact that France threw bodies at the breakdown, choking off the supply of ball which has come so easily and freely against Wales and Italy.
France came to cut England off at source. Dusautoir thundered into every collision and Lionel Nallet hit rucks with real menace but France, like England, were working off slim margins.
Yannick Jauzion, normally the most assured of midfield operators, was caught offside allowing Flood a shot at goal and there were further mistakes by Thomas Domingo and Sebastien Chabal which contributed to England’s nine-point haul by half time.
Chabal, brought in to provide oomph, was well controlled by Easter and his back row colleagues, and he never quite caused the destruction all France desired. Worse than that. He was so ineffective that he was dragged off the pitch after 50 minutes.
Other stellar names stalled. Chris Ashton, the stand-out individual of the tournament, hardly got his hands on the ball in the first half.
For a man whose instincts are to get involved at every opportunity, his difficulties showed just how tough it was for anyone to claw their way out of the morass of defensive tackles.
The moment Ashton did break free, early in the second half after a clever exchange of passes between Flood and Youngs, his trademark scoring swallow dive was in vain as the try was ruled out when Flood’s pass to Youngs was ruled marginally forward.
France also were out of sorts. A year ago they demolished England’s scrum so conclusively that two of England’s front row were substituted embarrassingly early in the contest.
At Twickenham, Dan Cole, one of those unable to cope, was handing out an early lesson to Domingo. The first two scrum penalties went England’s way and it was only when Alex Corbisiero came on to replace an injured Andrew Sherdian that England’s scrum lost its edge.
The game turned England’s way in the second half when Foden scored immediately after the interval. France had forced their way back into the contest with three penalties from Yachvili to three from Flood when England struck.
Cueto broke free off a scrum and, when the play was switched left, Foden squeezed past Francis Trinh-Duc on the outside and through the tackle of Rougerie to touch down. If the try was a touch scratchy in its conception with wayward passes, the finish was clinically professional.
It was a try which changed the shape and nature of the game. From a tight set piece affair, players from both sides found more room. The errors were still there but fatigue and injuries, which resulted in both benches being emptied after 50 minutes, created the space which was lacking at the start of the match.
Ashton flattered to deceive and then Jonny Wilkinson, on for Flood, had the poise and sang froid to bang over a longish penalty with his first touch of the game.
The fact that it nudged him ahead of Dan Carter as international rugby’s top points accumulator with 1,188 points probably won’t have registered with Wilkinson, but it certainly resonated with Martin Johnson up in the stands because it put his side in front 17-9.
Wilkinson’s penalty was the last scoring act of the game but the excitement never let up.
Rougerie went close after Trinh-Duc threaded a neat kick in behind a rushing England defence, and down the other end of the pitch Ashton decided to throw a wild pass when he might have trusted himself to burn Vincent Clerc who was France’s last defender.
No point chastising either man too harshly, though. It was a game which was in the balance for a long, long while. That was what made England’s victory all the sweeter.
First half: 3-0 Flood pen, 3-3 Yachvili pen, 6-3 Flood pen, 9-3 Flood pen, 9-6 Yachvili pen, 9-9 Yachvili pen. Second half: 14-9 Foden try, 17-9 Wilkinson pen.
Substitutes: England S Thompson (for Hartley 66), A Corbisiero (for Sheridan 23), S Shaw (for Deacon 71), H Fourie (for Cole 75), D Care (for Youngs 65), J Wilkinson (for Flood 51), M Banahan (for Hape 76).
France: G Guirado (for Servat 76), S Marconnet (for Domingo 59), J Thion (for Pierre 61), J Bonnaire (for Chabal 51), M Parra (for Yachvili 61), D Traille (for Poitrenaud 54), A Palisson (for Trinh-Duc 66)
Referee: George Clancy (Ireland).