Inspired France down England
March 2, 2002
Imanol Harinordoquy dives across the England line to score
England's Six Nations Grand Slam dream died at the Stade de France today as they came unstuck against their inspired title rivals.
England never recovered from a 17-0 deficit before half-time - Gerald Merceron and Imanol Harinordoquy scoring French tries - and full-back Jason Robinson's seventh Test touchdown proved insufficient.
Wing Ben Cohen grabbed an injury time consolation try, but France ran out richly-deserved winners and now look set for a championship clean sweep.
England arrived at a rainswept Stade de France, knowing that victory would put them within striking distance of their third successive Six Nations title.
Having crushed Scotland and Ireland, scoring 10 tries in the process, England faced their unbeaten championship rivals as world rugby's newly-ranked number one team.
Clive Woodward retained the same side that defeated Ireland 45-11 a fortnight ago, captained by Martin Johnson, just 72 hours before he appeals against his Rugby Football Union disciplinary hearing.
Johnson's three-week ban for punching Saracens hooker Robbie Russell is on hold, pending the appeal, but Woodward was confident that his talisman skipper would not be affected by the furore surrounding him.
Former rugby league star Henry Paul featured on the England bench, while France welcomed back fit-again captain Fabien Galthie and flanker Olivier Magne from suspension.
England had won on five of their last seven Paris appointments with France, but heavy morning rain in the French capital threatened to provide testing playing conditions for both teams.
French fly-half Gerald Merceron kicked off - and England immediately conceded a penalty as their forwards infringed, leaving Merceron with a straightforward 30metre goal attempt.
He sent the kick wide, though, letting England off the hook as Johnson and company took time to settle.
Jason Robinson got his first touch on four minutes when Ben Cohen freed him in space. But France snuffed out any danger, and wing David Bory then had England back-pedalling through a menacing touchline break.
France had started confidently, twice testing Robinson in defence. But the ex-rugby league ace coped well under pressure as the home side pinned England inside their own half, helped by quick ball from a fired-up pack.
On 10 minutes, that pressure was rewarded when France carved out a scintillating try.
Galthie's pass put number eight Imanol Harinordoquy galloping away, and the supporting Merceron collected before diving over between the posts.
Referee Andre Watson consulted with the video official before awarding it, establishing that Merceron had touched the ball down - and he converted his try for a richly-deserved 7-0 lead.
England were clearly rocked by the intensity, pace and power France had injected into their game, but the initial response was promising, with centre Mike Tindall breaking through before he was halted on the home 22-metre line.
Yet there was an untidiness and raggedness about England, and things reached crisis point on 19 minutes.
France's Northampton lock Olivier Brouzet broke away, again a move sparked by Galthie's inventiveness around the fringes, and quick possession through the French backs did for England.
Bory received the ball out wide, and he flipped a scoring pass to Harinordoquy, who went over in the corner, sending the home fans wild. Merceron's mighty touchline conversion meant that England were 14-0 adrift, giving them a mountain to climb as their title and Grand Slam dream was rapidly turning into a nightmare.
England were finding it difficult to cling on, their plight underlined when even Johnson was reduced to kicking away possession.
France almost scored again on 26 minutes when they smashed another huge hole in the England defence.
This time prop Pieter de Villiers provided the attacking momentum, and retreating England defenders hauled him down only just in time. Otherwise the visitors would have been even further behind.
Having gone into the game conceding just three tries in their last five Tests, England were suddenly defensively suspect.
France, exuding confidence in all parts of the pitch, knew that one more score would effectively finish their opponents off - and centre Tony Marsh crossed England's line only for referee Watson to have already whistled for an earlier infringement.
Fly-half Jonny Wilkinson sent a 34th-minute drop-goal attempt narrowly wide from a rare threatening field position, but normal service was resumed just before the break when Merceron made it 17-0 by landing a penalty.
England prop Phil Vickery was penalised for holding back French number 15 Nicolas Brusque, and Merceron's steepling kick split the posts.
England were close to the point of no return, and it went from bad to worse when Tindall limped off during first-half injury time.
Tindall's departure meant a first cap for Paul, who lined up alongside Will Greenwood in midfield, and England desperately needed a flash of inspiration in their quest to quell a relentless French tide.
Deep into stoppage time, England launched Robinson at the French defence, and it looked as though he might wriggle his way over the line before he was grounded.
It was still England's best spell though, an overdue spell of forward-dominated pressure which at last gave France something to think about.
Galthie needed treatment after suffering a knock, but England kept the heat on as the clock ticked down to half-time. They simply had to score, and a try finally arrived when Robinson scorched through a gap to claim his seventh Test try in 10 games.
Wilkinson converted, and although England trooped off 17-7 down, there was at last a spring in their step.
France knocked on from the restart, which offered England the sort of field position they had rarely established during the first half.
And two minutes into the second period, England cut their deficit to seven points when Wilkinson landed a 45-metre penalty after French lock David Auradou infringed.
Wilkinson's probing touch-finder then took England to just outside the French 22, and their growing confidence levels were confirmed when Austin Healey sprinted clear, only to be pulled down by two home defenders.
Back came France though, wing Aurelien Rougerie almost squeezing over at the corner flag, but committed English defence prevented a try.
Flanker Neil Back suffered a facial cut during that defensive rearguard, and he left the field to be replaced by his Leicester team-mate Martin Corry.
Not surprisingly, France could not start the second period with the same verve and vigour as they had opened the first, and it was England who looked more dangerous in attack.
A superb Greenwood run sliced open the French defence, but scrum-half Kyran Bracken could not hang onto the pass, and a glorious chance went begging.
Back returned to the action after being off for six minutes, yet he was greeted by the sight of French centre Damien Traille attempting a 55-metre penalty.
England number eight Joe Worsley had been penalised for a late tackle on Merceron. Fortunately for him though, Traille's kick landed just short of the target.
England were much tighter defensively, but they conceded another penalty, this time from just 25 metres out, and Merceron's successful strike made it 20-10 entering the final quarter, as Corry replaced Worsley.
French coach Bernard Laporte made a double substitution on the hour-mark as former Test team captain Fabien Pelous and prop Olivier Milloud entered the fray.
Wilkinson pinned France back with another raking touchfinder, but Paul was penalised for not releasing possession in the tackle, which meant that a promising attacking position was lost.
And when England's backs crept offside in the 70th-minute, Watson penalised them, giving Merceron a chance to effectively make the game safe. His kick hit the post though, which meant England were still just about in contention.
Another mesmeric Greenwood break almost proved enough for Robinson to score a try, but just when the full-back looked to have gone clear, France had sufficient numbers to stop him.
Woodward's last throw of the dice came six minutes from time when he made a quadruple substitution, sending on Jason Leonard, Dorian West, Danny Grewcock and Dan Luger. Wilkinson was among those to go off, and Healey moved to fly-half.
England were staring at possibly suffering their biggest defeat since South Africa knocked them out of World Cup 99 - also at Stade de France.
And with a 10-point advantage, France knew that all they had to was remain organised and disciplined.
England had an abundance of possession late on, but this was France's day as the final whistle was greeted by scenes of jubilation.
England's Grand Slam hopes were gone for another year - Woodward has still to achieve a clean sweep since taking over as supremo in 1997 - and the title now looks destined to become French property.
But on the day, neither Woodward nor any of his players or coaching staff could have any complaints.