March 14, 2023
England 10 v 53 France
France ended their Twickenham hoodoo in thrilling fashion by beating England to keep their title hopes alive. It was a fabulous performance from a French side that couldn’t find the best gear in the game, and a statement for all those who doubted recent results. France turned Twickenham into a playground, subduing England with relentless physicality, street smarts and a sprinkling of magic. It was a ferocious performance from the French, ruthlessly efficient at everything, razor sharp whenever any attacking opportunity presented itself. There were between one and fifteen heroes, but Antoine Dupont gave a performance as terrifying as it was outstanding, cementing his status as a global superstar.
It was a sobering afternoon for England. The optimism bubbling before the game was dashed at halftime. In the end, they suffered a record home defeat, baggage no player wants to carry. France deserves to be preferred, but England have never been in a race that has been bullied and humbled by a French side like a rapper. England’s strengths turned to jelly against Wales. France dominated the kicking game and tricked them at the breakdown. Statistically, England minimally had more possession and territory, but apart from a brief five-minute spell at the start of the second half, they never looked threatening. England spent eighty minutes on the canvas, France pulled all the punches.
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The pre-match fireworks had barely dissipated before France scored the first try of the match. Two mistakes in English were mercilessly exploited. Jack van Portvliet’s free-kick was too long and Henry Slade misread it in midfield. Gregory Aldritt made the initial break, feeding the onrushing Thibaut Flament, who offloaded Ethan Dumortier superbly and the winger fed Tomas Ramos to score. It was a frantic opening but France kept their composure, Jonathan Daunty proving a danger to crash as England were forced to chip away at every run. England were guilty of under-resourcing some breakdowns and, in compensation, over-resourcing others, to the detriment of their phase play. As the rain began to fall, England struggled to muster any attacking punch and France’s defense was relentless.
France’s second try came from a moment of excellence from Antoine Dupont, the scrum-half saw England regroup in the backfield and slotted over to make it 50/22. France did not waste their attacking platform, the outstanding Flament turning in a hard line in the corner. England got on the board shortly after Marcus Smith’s penalty, but committed a major fault in fouling on the restart. Stupid penalties were hurting England and France were in no mood for mercy, Ramos’ penalty restored the seventeen point buffer. They scored their third try just before half-time, Aldritt peeling off a powerful scrum before feeding Charles Olivone inside him to score. France led 27-3 coming down the tunnel and Twickenham was in complete shock.
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If there was any form of consolation for England, it was that France were distracted in the second half of their victory against Scotland. England looked sharper in the second half and almost scored the first try but Max Mullins couldn’t keep out Smith’s cross. They didn’t have to wait long though, the arrival of Alex Mitchell injecting some much-needed pace and Freddie Steward picked a great line to put England to a sniff. However, any notions of a comeback were soon dashed as France wrested the momentum back through their attacking play, clawing England back. DuPont once again played a major role in their fourth attempt; his clever shot was deflected behind by Romain Ntamak into the grateful arms of Flament, who won.
France’s fifth experiment was about speed of thought; Ramos recognized the shot advantage and cut through England’s defense before firing a well-placed shot into the box. Smith did well to clear it initially but France’s pursuit was fierce, forcing him back to his line. Crucially, Smith didn’t land the ball and Olivon showed great awareness to reach over the racket and tap it in for the score. It was a score that epitomized the sharpness of the French, ever alert for any opportunity. France almost forced another score through their kicking game, Dupont collecting his chip inside his own 22 before kicking the ball, Smith managing to take it over his line this time.
Any sense of relief was short-lived, and again it all came down to the punch; Gael Ficu spotted a madman Alex Dombrandt marking Damian Penault in the wide channels. No contest. The jet-heeled winger slid over to dive for France’s sixth try. The floodgates were open and France’s last try came from a slick off-line move, quick hands freeing Penault for his second attempt. England looked dead on their feet at the end, an injury to Ollie Lawrence forcing poor Dombrandt to line up in the centres, which they cruelly exposed in their last try. The final whistle gave England mercy and sparked scenes of French jubilation, the Twickenham curse lifted.
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It was a miserable afternoon for England, the rain might have been intermittent but the heavens well and truly opened up on them. It was a defeat that will raise many questions about England’s style of play and selection as they were comprehensively outclassed. The selection of Marcus Smith over Owen Farrell was the main talking point before the game, but in the end England were left all over the park. individual pursuit is unnecessary and unhelpful. More concerning is how sluggish England looked, slow to adapt, a worrying trait that was often used as a stick to beat Eddie Jones. Steve Borthwick summed it up perfectly when he said: “We were exposed today.” A rampaging Ireland lurks in the corner, a worrying thought, and England need to get off the canvas quickly.
France can enjoy arguably the best performance in their Six Nations history, although they cannot be too hopeful that England will help them to the title next weekend. Their win on Saturday is a testament to the era of Galtier and Edwards, with all aspects of their game coming together; power, precision, efficiency and spell dispersal. France’s identification of space is second to none and they have exposed England brutally and repeatedly. If their defeat against Ireland and less-than-convincing wins over Scotland and Italy raised some doubts ahead of the World Cup, Galtier’s team resolutely quelled them.