England pass French test
Graham Jenkins at Twickenham
February 23, 2013
England's Geoff Parling gets to know France's Louis Picamoles during a bruising clash at Twickenham © Getty Images
Don't believe everything you read in the newspapers - there is at least one product on offer in England that is 100% beef.
Stuart Lancaster's side weathered a brutal onslaught from a fired-up France before outmuscling their cross-Channel rivals to underline their undoubted class and edge nearer a much-prized Grand Slam. It was not pretty and they may have ridden their luck with a fortuitous try for centre Manu Tuilagi but that is not to say they did not deserve the win - far from it.
They rose to the biggest challenge of their campaign so far against a France side that simply possessed too much talent to wallow in mediocrity for a third Championship outing in-a-row. Time and time again the revitalised French hammered away in the hope of scuppering their hosts' Slam hopes, and not without success, but we were once again reminded how resilient, determined and downright stubborn this current England side has become - they would not be beaten today and perhaps not any day in this year's Championship.
There is so much to like about this England side but it is perhaps their collective belief that is the most endearing. France dominated the first half and claimed a deserved try but it was not enough to rock England's foundations and just as in Dublin when they were reduced to 14-men, there was no hint of panic. The faith they have in their own ability, both individually and as a team, which has been nurtured by Lancaster and his fellow coaches, continues to serve them well. They rolled with the punches and with the likes of outstanding No.8 Tom Wood at their heart; they quelled the French fire but did not stop there. The endeavour and imagination they showed deep into the game was a credit to their physical and mental prowess that could not be matched by France.
Captain Chris Robshaw once again led by example and his stock continues to rise alongside that of his side. Just a few short months ago his hopes of touring with the British & Irish Lions appeared to have been written off by coach Warren Gatland but Robshaw has since emerged not only as the form back-row player among the Home Nations but a leading contender to skipper the elite tourists.
Owen Farrell's contribution was just as telling with the fly-half's boot keeping England in touch in the opening period but once again his competitive spirit almost got the better of him. His physicality is a key part of his game but he lacked a cool head on at least one occasion with the 21-year-old arguably lucky to escape a yellow card for one confrontation with France scrum-half Morgan Parra. England's title hopes may well rest on his ability to channel his aggression in the right way.
England's Grand Slam dreams may be intact but this performance was far from perfect with France's power and pace exposing some cracks in their armoury. The lineout and scrum creaked under significant French pressure and a total of 21 missed tackles is sure to trigger some head scratching from Lancaster with one man's defensive shortcomings in particular sure to be scrutinised. Winger Chris Ashton failed not once, but twice to shackle France centre Wesley Fofana while on his way to a sensational first half try and such are the standards that this side sets for itself, he may well pay a high price for his defensive frailty.
Ashton appeared a little lost at times and even when afford time and space, the bounce of the ball went against him with only the try line in front of him. That frustration boiled over in the dying moments of the game with Ashton throwing the ball at France winger Benjamin Fall. Such high-profile indiscipline may be enough to convince Lancaster to hand someone like Wasps winger Christian Wade, someone not short of confidence or tries, the chance to impress against Italy next time out.
It is worth stressing that this was not the France stunned by Italy in Rome or that which was equally uninspiring against Wales in Paris, but a side brimming with confidence and adventure - the one that started this year's Six Nations as favourites. On his return to the starting line-up, scrum-half Parra offered a reminder of his class and France's almost laughable selection policy on by orchestrating his side superbly while setting the standard in defence - memorably felling England's wrecking ball of a centre Tuilagi. How they can afford to leave such an influential playmaker on the sidelines is baffling and you sense this showing will convince coach Philippe Saint-Andre to base his plans to avoid the dreaded wooden spoon around him.
As delightful as France's return to something resembling their best form was, it was the dazzling showing of Fofana that will perhaps provide the most solace as they reflect on the fact that with their third straight defeat they have equalled their worst start to a Five/Six Nations championship for 31 years. His fancy footwork and electric pace that left England grasping at thin air may not live as long in the memory as his coach's score at English rugby's HQ back in 1991 but it is a sign that France may yet play a pivotal role in deciding the title, just not in the way they had hoped.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.