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England 23-20 France: Maro Itoje try earns England Six Nations win at Twickenham

England (13) 23
Tries: Watson, Itoje Cons: Farrell 2 Pens: Farrell 3
France (17) 20
Tries: Dupont, Penaud Cons: Jalibert 2 Pens: Jalibert 2

England overhauled a stubborn, skilful France to snatch victory in a see-sawing Six Nations match at Twickenham.

Eddie Jones’ side trailed 17-13 at the break after dazzling scores from Antoine Dupont and Damian Penaud had put France in front.

The hosts’ pressure told in a cagey second half as Maro Itoje barged over for a 77th-minute score.

Even then France threatened to land a decisive counter-punch but Brice Dulin’s break was snuffed out.

Wales’ win over Italy earlier in the day means England’s victory is too late to salvage a Six Nations title defence.

But victory went some way to re-establishing England’s credentials as the northern hemisphere’s superpower, in world rankings at least.

The 2019 World Cup runners-up had slipped to fourth, below France, after defeats by Scotland and Wales in their opening three games of this year’s campaign.

Today’s victory takes them back above their opponents to third.

But, with Wales and Scotland upwardly mobile and France a few minutes away from a first win at Twickenham since 2005, any claims to being Europe’s number one side are far from conclusive.

France, who play unbeaten Wales in Paris next weekend, can still win the title for the first time since 2010.

Transition or tradition for poker-faced Jones?

Owen Farrell celebrates with Luke Cowan-Dickie
Owen Farrell celebrates with Luke Cowan-Dickie, who was making only his fifth start

The question for Jones now is whether to stick or twist again.

The Australian has admitted that his side are in a period of transition, suggesting only around 70% of the current squad will feature at the next World Cup in 2023.

He brought the free-running full-back Max Malins and hard-carrying hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie into the starting line-up and his side seemed revived as they slugged it out with France in an enthralling first half.

Anthony Watson’s try, created by Henry Slade’s darting break and George Ford mis-pass on the wing’s 50th England appearance, was the least he and his side deserved.

Six Nations table showing Wales P 4 W 4 D 0 L 0 PD 63 B 3 Pts 19; France P 3 W 2 D 0 L 1 PD 39 B 2 Pts 10; England P 4 W 2 D 0 L 2 PD 5 B 2 Pts 10; Ireland P 3 W 1 D 0 L 2 PD 31 B 3 Pts 7; Scotland P 2 W 1 D 0 L 1 PD 4 B 1 Pts 5; Italy P 4 W 0 D 0 L 2 PD -142 B 0 Pts 0
France’s game against Scotland – originally scheduled for 28 February – was postponed to a later date after a Covid outbreak in the French camp

The second half featured more perspiration than inspiration from England. Owen Farrell’s boot kept them within range before Itoje burrowed over to break France’s resolve.

With the final-weekend trip to Dublin a dead rubber in title terms, will Jones opt for further surgery to his side or restore usual mainstays Elliot Daly and Jamie George who contributed to a strong final quarter?

It may be that this summer’s tour of North America, while the Lions take on South Africa, will instead be the chance he takes to test some of his fringe squad members.

Jalibert and Dupont shine in defeat

Matthieu Jalibert
Jalibert, 22, is part of an exciting crop of young French fly-halves with Romain Ntamack and Louis Carbonel rivalling him for the 10 jersey

France will come again. With two successive under-20 world titles behind them, a home World Cup in 2023 in front of them and a clutch of exciting young stars hitting their straps, the future is bright.

In recent years, France have often failed to live up to their reputation for incisive, imaginative rugby. On their last Six Nations visit to Twickenham, they lost by more than 30 points, failing to lay a glove on England.

But, finally, they have a generation of players to match up to a glorious past. Central to their win was the half-back partnership of Dupont and Matthieu Jalibert.

Jones had said earlier this week that he would settle for scrum-half Dupont having merely a tidy game rather than a special one. His hopes were thwarted in 81 seconds. Dupont attacked the short side, ran a superb support line and then gathered Teddy Thomas’ kick ahead for the first score.

The excellence of Dupont, player of the tournament last year, probably the best in the world this, came as no surprise. But Jalibert, making his seventh start, has come in under the radar.

Picked ahead of Romain Ntamack, he pulled the strings to perfection, providing a delicious basketball pass for Damian Penaud to stroll in for a superb second try.

This France side can mix steel with the stardust though. Drilled by defence coach Shaun Edwards, they repelled England’s attacks repeatedly in the second half only to be finally undone within sight of a landmark win.

Man of the match – Anthony Watson

Anthony Watson
Watson made three clean breaks, more than any other home player, and scored his 22nd England try

‘A great game to be involved with’ – reaction

England wing Anthony Watson: “We knew we had not performed to our standards particularly in discipline against Wales. You could see the togetherness of our squad, we have to set the benchmark and we have got to get better.

“It was a great game to be involved with, credit to France, but it was a joy to be part of. Scoring a try in the last five minutes and controlling it at the end was the main thing. We are pretty happy with that.”

England fly-half George Ford: “I didn’t think we’d have that many attacking opportunities in the first half, but the pleasing thing is we were ready to go at France.

“We played some really good stuff. You can analyse games but you have got to be in the moment to adapt to what is going on.

“We were one pass or phase away from that killer instinct, to put another try into them so we need sharpen up a few things. The last 10-15 minutes, the pleasing thing was we kept turning up, giving ourselves opportunities to win.”

France head coach Fabien Galthie: “It was not the management at the end of the match that cost us, the problem was the penalty on one of our scrums, a kick that didn’t find touch, and things that went wrong earlier on the pitch.

“We didn’t really structure well enough our defence, especially the last English action that allowed them to score their second try.”

Fortress Twickenham

England have won their last eight home games against France in the Six Nations. Their last defeat came in February 2005 when they fell to a narrow 18-17 defeat.

Line-ups

England: Malins, Watson, Slade, Farrell, May, Ford, Youngs, M. Vunipola, Cowan-Dickie, Sinckler, Itoje, Ewels, Wilson, Curry, B. Vunipola.

Replacements: Daly for Malins (63), Lawrence for Slade (72), Robson for Youngs (76), Genge for M. Vunipola (63), George for Cowan-Dickie (72), Stuart for Sinckler (72), Hill for Ewels (78), Earl for Wilson (63).

France: Dulin, Thomas, Vakatawa, Fickou, Penaud, Jalibert, Dupont, Baille, Marchand, Haouas, R. Taofifenua, Willemse, Cretin, Ollivon, Alldritt.

Replacements: Gros for Baille (68), Chat for Marchand (72), Aldegheri for Haouas (59), Cazeaux for R. Taofifenua (59), Woki for Cretin (72). Not Used: Jelonch, Serin, Ntamack.

Referee: Andrew Brace (Ireland)

Touch judges: Mike Adamson (Scotland) & Craig Evans (Wales)

TMO: Joy Neville (Ireland)

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