|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?
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.
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
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
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: Jaco Peyper (South Africa)
Touch judges: Mike Adamson (Scotland) & Craig Evans (Wales)
TMO: Marius van der Westhuizen (South Africa)