England find another gear to halt France’s Grand Slam charge in wondrous game of rugby – ESPN

The turning point of this wonderful match came with nine minutes left. England had a penalty in their own half, and you could make out a voice saying to George Ford: “Fordy… this is when we turn the game!” England were four points down. France, who played some wondrous rugby, were looking at continuing their Grand Slam charge.

Eddie Jones’ side found another gear, brought an intensity we haven’t seen since the 2019 World Cup, and Maro Itoje’s try quashed France’s clean sweep hopes. It also breathed new life into England. This victory, on a chilly Saturday evening at Twickenham — where construction work outside the ground rattled around the empty seats, while voices punched the air — could prove to be monumental. They clicked against a France team who played some remarkable rugby but finished looking like a group of individuals, rather than the cohesive unit we thought and hoped they were building.

But for one moment, forget future permutations and possible World Cup signs, and revel in this match. There was some nonsense doing the rounds earlier in the day calling England massive underdogs against this much-fancied France team. Simply not true. England know full well the expectations around them. They are expected to win every game when it comes to Six Nations time, coupled with France’s championship record at Twickenham which now stands at 16 years without victory.

Pre-match there was more pressure on England, than France and, after three rounds, they had fallen short. But bet against this England team at your peril. All week they talked about targeting that final 20 minutes, expecting (or hoping) France’s intensity would fall off. It’d be unfair to criticise France, had Itoje’s try not stood, Fabien Galthie’s side would have been worthy winners, but ultimately England deserved the victory.

For a match which was punctuated by delightful attacking play, defence ultimately decided this. For so much of it, Shaun Edwards’ France system was prevailing… just. But it was a match of small margins. Heart, intensity and England’s bench eventually decided it. Jones judged his replacements perfectly. They talk of the 23-man squad, rather than one of 15 starters and eight substitutes — it’s easy to roll your eyes at this being mere rugby-speak — but Jones’ philosophy ran through this win.

Their penalty count is slowly improving — their Achilles heel in the opening rounds — while Ben Youngs and Tom Curry were outstanding, alongside the fleet-footed Anthony Watson on his 50th cap. But from one to 23, they were brilliant. They played proactive rugby, looking to take the game to France. They brought physicality and focus we haven’t seen since that New Zealand semifinal, but above all there was hunger.

England’s attacking game has evolved since the autumn, and while they showed hints of improvement against Wales, this was one where it came together. Owen Farrell put in his finest performance of the championship, while Youngs attacked brilliantly, against the man regarded as the best scrum-half in the world.

England hoped to keep Antoine Dupont in his box, but he sprang out from the outset when he scored after just 65 seconds. It was a wonderful, sweeping France move, but their second try after 33 minutes, was wondrous. It showed the danger of first-phase strike moves if executed perfectly. A French lineout just outside England’s 22 was thrown over the top to Gael Fickou, who passed inside to Dupont. The outstanding Matthieu Jalibert then floated wide and floated a delightful pass to Damian Penaud who crashed over in the corner. We’ve seen some wonderful France tries at Twickenham and this was up with the best. But France never truly pushed on from this platform.

Jones said post-match England’s goal was to stay in touch at half time and then land the finishing blows in the second half. It played out like he hoped, but what was different about this performance to those we’ve seen since the World Cup, was England’s ability mid match to mix things up. They played with different styles — they kept it tight on occasion, kicked long on others and then played out through the back on others. It was a multi-attack approach, and exactly the sort of evolution we need to see from this group.

For France, they are building nicely — despite their turbulent last three weeks where they had their last match postponed due to a COVID-19 outbreak — and with the promised land of a home World Cup waiting in 2023, this defeat will hurt, but it will not derail their gradual improvement. They have thrilling players throughout, and then the industrial Paul Willemse and Charles Ollivon in the pack, who live off cutting down opposition trees. They will be there or thereabouts in two years’ time, and will learn from this defeat.

England now travel to Ireland, knowing their Six Nations hopes are over, but Jones will be wanting more of the same from this group. France are still in with a great shout of winning the whole championship and need a victory against unbeaten Wales in Paris next weekend. But for one night, just enjoy this sport. This was a magnificent match and England were deserved winners.

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