England suffered a heartbreaking defeat in their debut Six Nations match against France on Saturday. They came back from an appalling 16-3 first-half deficit to be leading the match right up until the final two minutes when a devastating try from French replacement Gael Fickou sealed England’s fate.
The game started badly for the men in white when an unlucky bounce from the kickoff gave the French the ball, leading to a try for Huget within 32 seconds. This was not to be the only time Huget would cross the line this match, and 17 minutes in he did it again after a particularly successful cross field kick from the French left the English defence in tatters.
The French have an almost unique playing style among teams – they rely on the individual talent of their players to make gains instead of using set pieces and team moves. The normal practice is to sling the ball deep to give the coming player enough space and momentum to create some magic, and it worked to devastating effect against England.
What seemed to be defining English play at this point were silly handling errors, typical of a first match together, although this seemed to trouble the French far less. There were many good moments for England, with the ball in hand they looked dangerous, their offloads were clean and the momentum they took the ball with was making gains. However they seemed to want to emulate the French style of play and tried to kick cross field far more than has ever been necessary. The chase on a kick like that needs to be perfect. The French appear to have mastered it but it simply is not something England have practiced enough.
Danny Care took it upon himself to change England’s fortunes in perfect fashion, taking a quick tap penalty just inside the French twenty-two. He made a great run through the French line, and a cheeky pass to Mike Brown sealed the deal with a try just before half time. Things were looking up. With all these errors and the poor tactical judgment of England, they left the first half trailing 16-8.
Clearly the most important moment of the match was during half time in the England changing room; whatever Stuart Lancaster said to his men, it worked. They came out revitalised and ready to up the pressure on the French. Care was quick to capitalise on the gains of the first half, a penalty early in the half left France with a paltry five point lead. Care made another dynamic run through the French backs, slaloming well and landing down for a possible try. The decision was given to the TMO and he ruled against England, it was a tough call, incredibly close, but it will be a defining moment of conversations about the match for the rest of the Six Nations.
A great run from Billy Vunipola, breaking three tackles on his way, gave Burrel the perfect chance to run a tight line next to him for a sensational try under the posts. Two three-point kicks later, including a spectacular drop-goal from Danny Care, gave England a five point lead.
A French penalty with 15 minutes left reduced the gap to only two points. These were nail biting times for England but they kept their form and did not let the pressure get to them. With only seven minutes remaining England returned the favour and got a penalty of their own, taking us back to the relative comfort of a five point lead. Only a converted try would do for the French, and so of course that is what they did.
A missed tackle from Mike Brown gave the French space, and when you give them an inch they will take the entire pitch. They surged down the right hand side of the pitch, slinging the ball out wide, Gael Fickou delivering the killer blow. The converted try spelled death for England.
It was a mixed match for England. The first half clearly left much to be desired but the second half performance was one we can be proud of. An away match against France is always a tall order, especially in a post-Lions tour year where France traditionally do very well. We can expect this to be the hardest match of the series for England, so perhaps a championship win is not out of the question.
Image courtesy of BBC