England restore pride in the shirt
Graham Jenkins at the Stade de France
March 11, 2012
Stuart Lancaster celebrates England's win © Getty Images
Super Saturday in this year's Six Nations may still be six days away but it will be hard-pressed to live up to a thrilling afternoon of rugby at the Stade de France that saw England restore further pride to English rugby.
England fans caught a glimpse of a very bright future as their heroic side registered a famous victory that will surely intensify calls for interim head coach Stuart Lancaster to be handed the job full time. A gutsy and battling display, arguably their best in recent memory, was rewarded with a rare Six Nations success in Paris that ends their rivals' title hopes and keeps their own feint hopes of glory alive.
France were put to the sword in the first half but were never out of the game and rolled with the punches before clearing their collective heads and staging an inevitable comeback. But unlike the Irish last weekend, England dug deep enough to preserve their advantage and hold off a desperate French rally. France could have easily won this game, and perhaps should have given the points that went begging, but crucially they were denied by a new England, a team a nation can be proud of once more.
The visitors' third success on the road in this campaign, a notable first for an inexperienced England team, and France's first home defeat for 10 games cannot be underestimated in terms of the rapid development of the side and Lancaster's growing stature. This win will also see England climb to 4th place in the latest International Rugby Board rankings that in turn will provide a priceless top seeding in the 2015 World Cup draw at the end of the year if they can cement their position.
Playing at a lung-busting tempo, that even the omnipresent oom-pah bands in the stands could not match, and displaying an enviable intensity, England were more than a match for their previously unbeaten rivals with their cohesion and work rate splintering a French side that did not know what had hit them in the opening period when one blistering five-minute spell saw centre Manu Tuilagi and then Ben Foden cross for tries. Tuilagi's foot speed for his try was a dazzling reminder that he is so much more than a battering ram while Foden's love-affair with France continued having notched four of his six Test tries against Les Bleus.
No.8 Ben Morgan was another to benefit from France's swiss-cheese life defence with one barnstorming run in particular rocking France on their heels. His eye-catching effort was matched by flanker Tom Croft whose burst of speed in the closing stages of the match for the all-important third try offered no hint of the 70 bruising and energy-sapping minutes of action that preceded it.
Fly-half Owen Farrell was once again a central figure and really is joy to watch. It is increasingly clear that any England side hoping to lay their hands on the World Cup crown in 2015 needs to be built around the insanely-talented playmaker. The 20-year-old, making only his fourth Test appearance and second in the fabled No.10 jersey, oozes class. Nothing appears to faze him and while his game management may still need some work, he is destined for greatness.
That is not the kind of adjective you would have used to describe France's early endeavour. At times they looked clueless but this is France and they can quite easily go from calamity to class in the blink of an eye. The decision to start the half back pairing of Lionel Beauxis and Julien Dupuy appeared to backfire on coach Philippe Saint-Andre who is unlikely to make the same mistake again with replacements Francois Trinh-Duc and Morgan Parra breathing life into the home side's challenge.
Owen Farrell impressed once again for England © Getty Images
Centre Wesley Fofana's star continues to rise as he extended his outstanding scoring run but too many of his team-mates failed to match his level of performance. Even the much-hyped French pack failed to pack its usual punch.
Despite their shortcomings, they came agonisingly close to stealing this game with some sublime execution on the part of Trinh-Duc and centre Aurelien Rougerie that ended with a failed drop goal attempt. It was one of a series of costly misses - be them from the kicking tee or missed tackles - that lost them this game.
The new-found belief and team spirit within this England side was best summed up by their rearguard effort having been stripped of the services of Charlie Sharples for ten minutes after the winger soured his debut with a yellow card.
It could have been a huge turning point but you would not have known that England were playing with 14-men - such was their industry in their team-mate's absence. France failed to capitalise on their numerical advantage and while that effort may have taken its toll on England in the remainder of the game, there would be no dramatic turnaround.
It was not perfect from England but that fact will only add fuel to the fire that they may be on to something special. This year's Six Nations is realistically beyond them but there are certainly more bright days ahead on this evidence.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.
"The loudest cheer at a rugby game, away from social media gimmicks, pumping music and pyrotechnics will always be for a try." Tom Hamilton on the Twickenham atmosphere
"The only thing that will stop this England team from becoming a great team is themselves. They need to ask themselves 'what can we be?'" The Phil Vickery column
The latest Monday Maul looks at the hectic final weekend, the Lions hangover, the superb Mike Brown and the 'selfie'
"At the crux of this England team is a lack of fear, they are not afraid to throw playbooks out of the window." Tom Hamilton reports from Twickenham