Battling England drive on to sink French resistance
ENGLAND are quickly and impressively closing in on a championship-winning performance.
A character-fuelled effort in Cardiff against Wales was followed up by a devastating show of attacking force against Italy.
On Saturday, it was their unflappable defence that earned them victory against the only other unbeaten team in the tournament and put them within two wins of a first Six Nations grand slam for eight years.
Scotland and Ireland must be warned.
This England have the whiff of victory in their nostrils, are learning the lessons of past disappointments and will find any means necessary to deliver the win.
Last November they faltered amid the expectation following their humbling of Australia and were crushed by a physically brutal South Africa.
With expectation building ahead of this pivotal Six Nations rivalry, there was to be no repeat as France, a side of mercurial talent and a substantial amount of beef up front – who when allowed to play can rival the top teams in the world – were rarely allowed a sniff.
Martin Johnson’s men starved Marc Lievremont’s charges of possession at source, with a destructive demonstration of will power at the breakdown.
Tom Palmer led the charge, the former Leeds Tyke maturing into one of the most feared second rowers in the northern hemisphere.
James Haskell was not too far behind. If ever there was an advert for actually playing in France to strengthen one’s game, then these two Stade Francais forwards showed little mercy in demonstrating so against their country of employment.
Tom Wood was also imperious, playing only his third Test match, this was a significant step up in competition to his first two games but the blindside flanker more than stood his ground against French powerhouses Thierry Dusatoir and Imanol Harinordoquy
The pack was typically determined, even when Andrew Sheridan limped off after only 24 minutes; Alex Corbisiero trotted on and little altered.
Where England were susceptible was in the first half and their handling.
Toby Flood and Dimitri Yachvili shared six penalties – the Frenchman missing one from the right touchline that would have nudged the visitors ahead on the stroke of half-time – in what was a frought, tension-filled opening 40 minutes.
Flood and his half-back partner Ben Youngs have, alongside the ruthless Chris Ashton, formed the foundations of the Red Rose revolution with a series of fearless displays, but they looked as anxiety-racked as anyone in a first half when there was nothing to separate the two teams on the scoreboard and on the field of play.
“It was just a good old fashioned physical battle,” reflected captain Mike Tindall, whose 100 per cent record with the armband stretches to three matches despite the good approach work of the first half being undone by inexplicable handling errors.
“We forced too much first half, but the sign of a team that’s progressing is when at half-time they have a proper, quiet, controlled talk and sort it out.
“The South Africa game is a good comparison, because today we’ve played that little bit of territory better, and when you do that you’ve got to complete and come away with points.
“We felt comfortable on defence, it gives us a lot to work on for Scotland. We’ll keep our feet firmly grounded because it’s another big game.”
That coolness in the home dressing room at the break paid dividends, for the game’s defining moment came straight from the second-half restart.
Flood’s kick-off was misjudged by Clement Poitrenaud whose kick was charged down by a tide of white shirts.
England forced a five-metre scrum from where Youngs and Flood fashioned an opportunity for Foden.
Another of the new generation, Foden has rarely been able to get close to the contact area in the first two games, but when presented with the chance here, he drove his way over the whitewash.
Flood missed the conversion and moments later limped off with a knee injury, presenting Jonny Wilkinson with his first act – a testing 47-metre penalty.
Wilkinson – who is fast becoming the best impact replacement in the game – made no mistake in coolly landing his 1,187th point for his country, a new world record for the star of English rugby.
“Eight points is double that in a Test match,” was Johnson’s analysis of the task now facing France, and with his side’s determination not to lose the game with their powerful defence, he knew he was in safe hands.
As much as Francois Trinh-Duc, Yannick Jauzion and Vincent Clerc tried to fashion an opening, Les Bleus could not penetrate, although England escaped when Aurelien Rougerie failed to touch down Trinh-Duc’s intelligent grub kick.
Steve Thompson stepped off the bench to achieve a notable landmark in earning his 64th cap, which draws him alongside Brian Moore as the most capped hooker in England history.
And his Leeds Carnegie team-mate Hendre Fourie might have only had four minutes to prove his worth, but in one charge through the heart of the French resistance he took four blue shirts with him and illustrated his growing status.
“We had to really fight for the win,” said Johnson, whose side not only have one hand on the Six Nations title, but are building a tremendous head of steam towards the World Cup later this year. Test matches are won by good fundamentals. You have to front up to the battle, and we did that.”
Scorers: England – tries Foden; pens Flood 3, Wilkinson. France – pens Yachvili 3.