Fabien Galthié's new-look side confounded expectations in style. This was in large part due to inspirational new captain Charles Ollivon, a rampaging flanker with winger-like speed and a taste for tries.
“We reversed the situation and scored three tries against England, in the rain,” Galthié said. "The staff have been working hard for the last two months on the details that led us to this great victory.”
What a way to celebrate a first game in charge for Galthié, and a totally revamped backroom staff which includes former rugby league star Shaun Edwards as defense coach. For much of the match, Edwards wasn't really needed.
After 54 minutes the score was a scarcely believable 24-0. This against a side which crushed France 44-8 last year in a contest so embarrassingly one-sided England might have scored 60 or more, only to clearly ease up.
Blanking England in the first half for the first time in the championship since 1988 was a remarkable achievement for France. Doubly so considering England did the same to perpetual try-scoring machine New Zealand in the World Cup semifinal only months ago.
England coach Eddie Jones, so goading in his pre-match declarations, feared a rout was coming. “That was a game that could have been quite ugly for us," Jones said. "The crowd was going nuts, they got a bit of a roll on.”
But when England finally got its act together, France's line held firm when in previous years it cracked through lack of composure, ill discipline, or both. Jones had bragged that the fledgling French side would buckle under his side's “brutality.” After all, England reached the World Cup final and Galthié is completely rebuilding.
Instead, France stunned England with its aggression, roared on by a Stade de France crowd hardly expecting this from a squad featuring nine players aged 23 or younger and two new caps. Only one French player was over the age of 27, only one had 50 caps.
Ollivon's second try sparked a mass brawl after he was tagged by a cynical late slide tackle. In 30 seconds of mayhem, players slid and tumbled into the advertising boards as they grappled in a blur of mud-stained, rain-soaked blue and white jerseys.
Referee Nigel Owens had a stern word with the captains, but at least England's spirit was roused. England right winger Jonny May — France's Twickenham tormentor with a hat trick last year — sprinted over for two tries to bring England within 10 points with 15 minutes remaining.
Owen Farrell's last-gasp penalty came too late, though, giving England only the scant consolation of a defensive bonus point. After an initial England foray, opportunist France pounced after five minutes when flyhalf Romain Ntamack teed up right winger Vincent Rattez with a clever reverse pass inside, then converted.
Rattez was involved in France's second try, scored by Ollivon after 19 minutes. Ollivon appeared to knock on when challenging flanker Courtney Lawes for a high ball. It bounced to Rattez, who then fed it back to Ollivon to sprint home down the left. But a video replay appeared to show the ball hitting Lawes' hand before diverting to Rattez and Owens allowed the try.
Ntamack, who also slotted over a penalty, expertly converted from wide on the left. After 20 minutes, France led 17-0 and Jones was eating his words while powerful line-breaking center Manu Tuilagi was off injured and nursing a groin problem.
England's rattled players formed a huddle when the halftime whistle blew. “We don't want to play another 40 minutes like we played today,” said Jones. England came back out all fired up, camping near the try line, but it was France scoring again.
Ollivon bated down a lineout to the slippery scrumhalf Antoine Dupont, who carved his way through the midfield before releasing Ollivon. He got tackled near the line but momentum took him over. England rallied when May latched onto scrumhalf Ben Youngs' grubber kick and Farrell converted. May's second was superbly taken as he drifted in from the right and ghosted past three defenders.
Nerves may have got the better of France if George Kruis had scored with a few minutes left, but he was turned over when crossing the line. Farrell thought England got its early tactics wrong. “We probably had the ball a bit too much in our own half. We made a couple of mistakes and they capitalized,” he said. ”We couldn’t seem to get a foothold. They seemed to grow a bit in the first half, but we seemed to pause."
England will have to hit the “Play” button next Saturday away to Scotland, while rejuvenated France will be excited about hosting an Italy side reeling from a 42-0 loss to Wales. Things could finally be looking up for France, 10 years after it last won the tournament.
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