It required extra time and sudden death but England are the Autumn Nations Cup champions after an extraordinary finale at Twickenham. The home side missed one major opportunity to score the crucial ‘golden’ points when a penalty from Owen Farrell hit the inside of the right-hand upright but a crucial turnover by Maro Itoje gave England’s captain a second chance which he landed on the angle from the 22-metre line.
Few had given a depleted France any chance of winning but here was a contest to add an extra frisson to this week’s key Brexit negotiations. Despite the unavailability of two dozen of their leading players, Les Bleus gave an excellent account of themselves against an England team handicapped for long periods from a combination of apparent complacency and a desperately unambitious gameplan.
An inexperienced France side led for the vast majority of normal time, courtesy of a 19th-minute try from their outstanding full-back Brice Dulin and an influential display from the visiting outside-half Matthieu Jalibert. As well as creating Dulin’s score, the calm Jalibert also slotted the conversion and two important penalties in contrast to Farrell who also missed three penalty attempts in normal time.
Previously this autumn England had mostly steamrollered every pack in front of them but this was a very different story. France have some extremely talented up-and-coming players destined to achieve plenty in their careers and they also had something even more priceless in the modern game: a willingness to try something different occasionally.
Jalibert is one of those fly-halves who look to be strolling around until – too late – he is gone before you can say ‘Voila!’ The Bordeaux 10 spotted the glimmer of a hole between Jamie George and Farrell, accelerated past the flat-footed England hooker and put an unmarked Dulin over for the kind of classic try that almost qualifies under the heading ‘vintage’ these days.
England, having preyed on some early French indiscipline, were suddenly on the back foot and required to play catch-up. Simply kicking the ball skywards and waiting for opposing errors was suddenly not enough, with Les Bleus now visibly growing in confidence. After the cameras spotted Sam Underhill kicking the ball out of the hands of the visiting scrum-half, Jalibert kicked his second nerveless penalty and the half-time score of 13-6 did not remotely flatter France.
It was also the product of a remarkable period of defensive resilience on their own line which ended when the ball was dislodged from Ellis Genge’s grasp as he attempted to drive over. Shaun Edwards has already made a significant impact as the French defensive coach and here was another clear example of his influence.
Eddie Jones’s desire for a sharp second-half improvement was evident in the abrupt 43rd-minute substitutions of Underhill and Joe Launchbury, with Ben Earl and Jonny Hill invited to add some extra zest. There was the occasional flicker but a competitive French lineout and Farrell’s misfiring boot continued to frustrate the hosts’ comeback efforts.
Even when Jalibert was forced to limp off, a brace of fine angled penalties from his replacement Louis Carbonel kept England at arm’s length until Luke Cowan-Dickie’s last-gasp close-range score gave his side a lifeline. At least the return of 2,000 spectators improved the ghost ship atmosphere of recent games but an exasperated cry of ‘Stop kicking!’ from the stands pretty much reflected the prevailing local mood.