England 26-18 France, March 11, 2007
England stun France at Twickenham
March 11, 2007
England's Shane Geraghty sprints away from the French defence
© Getty Images
England kept alive their RBS 6 Nations title hopes - and destroyed French Grand Slam hopes in the process - after producing a performance packed with courage, character and commitment at Twickenham.
Injured Jonny Wilkinson's replacement Toby Flood amassed 16 points, including a try, before going off injured and leaving the stage to his replacement Shane Geraghty. Geraghty slotted a penalty and conversion, but his mesmeric midfield break decided the contest as he created England's winning try for centre Mike Tindall.
The victory - England's first against France since their 2003 World Cup semi-final triumph in Sydney - means they can still secure Six Nations silverware through beating Millennium Stadium hosts Wales next Saturday. Points difference looks likely to decide the trophy's destiny - and England are trailing France and Ireland in that capacity - but in terms of confidence, the win will have worked wonders.
It was easily the best performance of head coach Brian Ashton's four-Test reign, and means England will start as firm favourites to inflict an embarrassing Six Nations whitewash on hapless Wales in Cardiff next weekend. Flanker Tom Rees was a deserved man-of-the-match recipient, yet England, generally, played with so much purpose and composure, they thoroughly deserved to take the spoils.
They kept France tryless - David Skrela and Dimitri Yachvili kicked three penalties each for Les Bleus - and there could be few complaints about the result. England's task of avoiding a fourth successive defeat against France was hardly helped by the loss of injured trio Wilkinson, Phil Vickery and Andy Farrell.
Mike Catt, the 35-year-old London Irish centre, became the oldest back to captain England, while there were first Test starts for Flood, Rees and prop Tim Payne. England, showing 11 changes from the side thumped in record Six Nations fashion by Ireland two weeks ago, fell behind inside four minutes when fly-half Skrela landed a 45-metre penalty.
Flood tied things up with his first kick at goal five minutes later, but Skrela ensured he kept France ticking over through two further strikes during a seven-minute spell. Catt's first two notable touches resulted in blunders, and although England enjoyed the lion's share of possession, their lack of pace out wide - wing David Strettle apart - played into French hands.
Full-back Josh Lewsey underlined England's erratic nature by rifling out a reckless pass straight to France outside centre David Marty, and there was little pattern to a game ruined by countless unforced errors, despite perfect conditions. Flood's second successful penalty brought England back to 9-6, yet scrum-half Yachvili - who had scored 53 of France's 73 points during their three successive wins against the world champions - slotted a penalty before the break.
Flood matched that strike, showing considerable composure amid the heat of battle, and England trooped off 12-9 adrift at half-time, although disappointment would have prevailed, given they made 50 more completed passes than France during the opening period. Skrela, who had taken a heavy blow early in the action, did not reappear for the second half, and was replaced by richly-talented Stade Francais playmaker Lionel Beauxis.
England, considerably improved from their lamentable effort in Dublin, began the second period brightly, as Flood cleverly mixed invention with his kicking game. And they finally cracked the French defence on 48 minutes after England stole French lineout ball and set up an imposing attacking platform.
Quick ball was the order of the day as France retreated deep inside their own 22, and when scrum-half Harry Ellis shipped possession side, Catt's searing outside break and offload in the tackle created enough space for Flood to touch down unopposed. Flood added the extras, giving him all 16 of England's points, and there was a renewed belief in the England ranks that they could destroy French Grand Slam hopes.
Yachvili landed a 53rd-minute penalty to take France back to within one point, and there were signs of the game opening up as the remarkably mild conditions began taking a toll on both teams. Dead-eye Yachvili though, emulated Skrela in completing a penalty hat-trick when Mike Tindall drifted offside, and France led 18-16 as Flood limped off to be replaced by 20-year-old debutant Shane Geraghty.
It was a frustrating end to the action for an impressive Flood, whose leg was immediately strapped by England medical staff, and it meant a degree of reorganisation in the home side's ranks as the final quarter approached. But England continued to play with far greater imagination than they had showed in recent games, and France could not relax, as the game retained its knife-edge status.
Strettle remained a major problem for France, running aggressively and decisively whenever possession arrived on his wing, and his pace created the position from which England edged ahead through 15-metre Geraghty penalty. The game, after an opening half that toiled and bumbled along, had suddenly gone up three gears, and England showed a real appetite for the battle, displaying a confidence and control they so lacked at Croke Park.
Geraghty, full of youthful promise, left an indelible mark on the game seven minutes from time when his brilliant midfield surge shredded the French defence. Although his inside pass eluded the supporting Catt, Tindall was on hand to collect possession and claim his 13th Test try in 53 games.
Geraghty added the simple conversion, and France had it all to do, but they encountered an England defence supremely organised that made its first-up tackles count. England successfully played out the closing stages, with smiles replacing the frowns of Dublin just two weeks ago, as they displayed powerful signs of a team back on track.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.