France richly deserve European crown
Graham Jenkins at the Stade de France
March 20, 2010
France celebrate clinching the 2010 Six Nations Championship glory © Getty Images
'Le Crunch' certainly lived up to its name with France and England playing out a brutal clash at the Stade de France to bring the curtain down on this year's Six Nations in bone-crunching style.
France weathered everything that a fired up England could throw at them and like all great champions they came out on top. In doing so the class of 2010 wrote their names into the history books as the ninth French side to complete a Championship clean sweep and there can be no doubt that they are worthy of the northern hemisphere crown having dominated this year's battle.
This may have not been the most attractive performance from Marc Lievremont's side, indeed the champagne rugby was notable by its absence, but that was to be expected with so much at stake. The fact that Ireland's defeat in Dublin meant the Championship title was already theirs before a ball was kicked did little to ease the pressure that has been slowly building all week. This game was all about the result - to come so far and not close out Le Grand Chelem would have served as a hammer blow to the side psychologically but they came through the test to underline their status as a superb side with greatness perhaps waiting around the corner for this talented generation.
The flair may have been missing, with the wet conditions doing their best to ruin the game as a spectacle, but the physicality of France's previous performances was still there to be seen and felt. And in a committed England side they had an opponent more than willing to go toe-to-toe with both sides taking it in turns to bludgeon each other with the intensity of the blows drawing gasps from an enthralled crowd.
This was a refreshingly adventurous England who came out of the blocks flying and full of the kind of attacking intent that has been sorely missing from their game. Manager Martin Johnson's supposed gamble on fullback Ben Foden and debutant winger Chris Ashton paid immediate dividends with the duo combining superbly for what proved to be the only try of the game. Both thrived within an attacking game plan and along with Mark Cueto they were constantly hungry and looking for the ball.
Fly-half Toby Flood was another to deliver a well-crafted performance and the injection he provided for the side also appeared to benefit inside centre Riki Flutey although he is still some way from his best. There was also an interesting cameo from Jonny Wilkinson whose long-range penalty not only brought his side within range but also underlined his value to the team - no other player can keep the scoreboard ticking over like him.
The whole side maintained an impressive workrate throughout the game but were hampered by the persistent rain that made handling an issue for both sides. But they refused to change their plan of attack and continued to pepper the French defence with plenty of invention while slamming the door shut with another excellent defensive showing - no other side has kept the French try-less this year. But there were concerns at scrum time with France able to turn the screw all-too-easily and draw valuable penalties that eventually proved the difference between the sides.
England's eagerness was their downfall at times and they were guilty of playing too much rugby especially with the elements conspiring against them. It appears it is either feast or famine for England so they must continue to strive for a more productive balance and the ability to produce that week in, week out. A disappointed Johnson claimed his young players 'came of age' which bodes well for not only their future but that of the side too.
No matter how relentless the rain, it could not dampen the atmosphere. The stadium was crackling with anticipation before kick off in a way that only a potential Grand Slam for the home side could generate. But there was an added element, a burning desire to see France return to winning ways against their cross-Channel rivals who sent them crashing out of the 2007 Rugby World Cup on this stage and handed them another defeat on their return the following year.
As has been the case for much of the Championship, scrum-half Morgan Parra and No.8 Imanol Harinordoquy were at the heart of the French challenge. The tenacious Parra's star continues to rise and his boot was invaluable to his side on a day when they drew a rare blank when it came to scoring tries. He and his halfback partner Francois Trinh-Duc drew England's sting with a clever kicking game that kept England's at arm's length for much of the game.
The warrior spirit is also alive and well in Harinordoquy who, clearly singled out as a key threat, bore the brunt of a ferocious forward effort from England but would not be moved - at one point waving away the medical staff as he staggered back towards the action. Captain Thierry Dusautoir was another to lead by example - thumping his English counterpart Lewis Moody into the turf with one trademark assault. But the man of the match honour went to prop Nicolas Mas as a reward for his efforts at scrum-time where the French stole a crucial advantage.
But as far as France were concerned, this wasn't a day for individual adulation. This was all about crowning the best team in Europe and what better way for France to claim that honour than by producing a superb all-round effort from 1-15. There are very few weak links in this side - if any - with perhaps their mental toughness until now providing the biggest question mark. But not any more. With victory France showed that they not only have the talent to win the big games but also the temperament - a priceless combination that not only makes them the envy of Europe but the world.
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum.