Resolute France seal Grand Slam
Huw Richards at the Stade de France
March 20, 2010
Francois Trinh-Duc lands an early drop-goal
© Getty Images
France gound out a narrow 12-10 victory over England at the Stade de France to seal their first Six Nations Grand Slam since 2004.
England fullback Ben Foden scored the only try of the game after five minutes but France prevailed thanks to three penalties from Morgan Parra and a drop-goal from fly-half Francois Trinh-Duc. France went on to the field knowing that they had already claimed their 17th title in all and their fifth in the last nine seasons courtesy of Scotland's win at Croke Park, but with other issues left to resolve.
As skipper Thierry Dusautoir, acutely aware of France's four consecutive losses to the old enemy including the shattering 2007 World Cup semi-final loss on this ground, had said during the week: "They are better than us in the big matches. We know this and we have to change it."
After team introductions whose oddity was that the loudest roars were for replacements - Wilkinson for England and Chabal for France - and the usual resounding French victory in the battle of the anthems, the Tricolores started with impressive purpose. Trinh-Duc fired an angled touchfinder into the English 22, Dylan Hartley's throw-in was penalised at the line-out and Imanol Harinordoquy came charging from the back of the resulting scrum to set up a position from which Trinh-Duc fired over a 35 metre drop goal.
Deluge was already a fair description of the weather and such a start inspired thoughts that it might also fit the French performance. England's response, though, was instant and spectacularly out of keeping with their uninspiring season so far. Toby Flood's missed pass launched a back move that continued through Riki Flutey and debutant wing Chris Ashton whose superbly timed flicked pass sent his Northampton clubmate Foden careering over in the same left-hand corner in which Josh Lewsey scored early in the World Cup semi-final in 2007 and Mark Cueto was so narrowly denied a try in the final a week later.
Flood added the conversion and a roaring capacity crowd knew that had a serious contest on their hands. Having lost one first-choice lock, skipper Steve Borthwick, on Friday, England were deprived of the other after a quarter of an hour. Simon Shaw, who had been limping since the first few minutes, went off to be replaced by Tom Palmer.
His last action was a flop on top of the tackled Clement Poitrenaud that led referee Lawrence to reverse the penalty he had awarded for not releasing. Parra missed with the kick, but was on target when given another opportunity four minutes later to cut England's lead to 7-6.
With France enjoying an edge in position and possession it was no long before his forwards earned Parra another shot, pressurising the English scrummage into offending and the 21-year-old coolly landed the goal to give them a 9-7 lead that fairly reflected the balance of play.
That award also reflected the shape of things to come. Not least of France's strengths this season has been a front-five in which Thomas Domingo and Julien Pierre have advanced from test novice to proven international. Twice more their dominance brought penalties. The left-foot of wing Alexis Palisson took play to the English 22 where not long after a further powerful scrummage had Mr Lawrence once more blowing the whistle and Parra adding the three points that gave France their 12-7 interval lead.
The extent of England's worries over the scrummage was shown when two-thirds of their front row, Hartley and Dan Cole did not reappear after the interval, giving way to David Wilson and Steve Thompson.
This had a stabilising effect and England threatened briefly in the opening stages of the second half, particularly when deft work by Mike Tindall sent the effervescent Ashton away down the left. The young wing kicked ahead and Poitrenaud had to move rapidly to beat him to the touchdown.
France introduced five replacements between the 50th and 60th minutes as they aimed to reassert their ascendancy, but England continued to enjoy the edge in territory. Ashton continued to look lively, while the most dangerous break came from England's other wing Cueto, who charged down the centre only for a knock-on to end the danger. A reward came at last with 15 minutes to go. France were penalised 40 metres out and Wilkinson, who had replaced Flutey four minutes earlier, landed the kick to bring England within drop-goal range.
The opportunity never came. France held on for their ninth Grand Slam and third of the Six Nations era and there can be little doubt that over five matches and 400 minutes they richly deserved it. Third place and five points represents a backward step for England - again a fair reflection of their performances across the season. But after their slightly desperate attempts to extract positives from some pretty dull efforts earlier on, there was some genuine promise on show here. The issue, as it has been for England since 2003, is to find a means of sustaining it.
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