France 12-10 England, Six Nations, March 20
Johnson proud of battling England
March 20, 2010
Lewis Moody led from the front for England, but his side came up just short © Getty Images
England manager Martin Johnson heaped praise on his side following their battling 12-10 defeat to France but was frustrated that they were unable to prevent their cross-Channel rivals claiming the Six Nations Grand Slam.
Johnson had revamped his back division in search of some vibrancy after last weekend's drab 15-15 draw with Scotland and he got it with fullback Ben Foden and debutant winger Chris Ashton combining for a try in the opening moments of the game. But in the end, France ground out the victory with three penalties from Morgan Parra and a Francois Trinh-Duc drop-goal on the back of a dominant first-half scrummaging performance.
"Of course we are frustrated, we lost," said Johnson. "But I said to the guys as France picked up the trophy 'you have played the Grand Slam champions and you took them all the way'.
"A lot of players came of age today. It was Danny Care's best performance for England, Toby Flood as well in the way he managed the game and managed the week after coming in for Jonny Wilkinson. It was great to have Mike Tindall back. Ben Foden's counter-attacking, his play under the high ball was great. Mark Cueto was outstanding again and Ashton handled it very well."
France took the sting out of England's early adventure with a superior kicking game and a dominant first-half scrummaging performance. Parra kicked three penalties and that proved decisive.
"They won the kicking game in the first half and their set piece got us under pressure," added Johnson. "We did well still to be in the game at half-time with the penalty count against us. In the second half we were tactically better and the majority of the game was played in their half."
But England could not break down the French resistance and were limited to a Wilkinson penalty. While France celebrated the Grand Slam, England finished the tournament in third place with two wins and a draw. Johnson felt it was a case of what might have been.
"We have lost two games by a combined total of six points. We missed a penalty by one metre in the drawn Scotland game. It was a case of could have. But there are probably four teams saying that," Johnson added.
Johnson cut an annoyed figure on the touchline after the game, questioning referee Bryce Lawrence's interpretations in a number of areas. The England manager said afterwards that the official had been "very quick to penalise us when we were wrong, but not as quick to penalise them."
"It doesn't matter really, what I think," he said. "He refs the game and his decision is final and that's fine. I thought the guys did a great job of calling the game. I knew we could get outside (Mathieu) Bastareaud and we had to back ourselves with our hands when we got outside and we did that early on when we got the try.
"Then the rain came down and we were carrying well, but there was a few times where it was so wet that the ball slipped out and they could kick and pin us back. I thought coming in 12-7 down at half time after a huge effort, despite the huge penalty count against us and Simon [Shaw] going off being a blow, that all through the game we did a great job.
"It wasn't a team transformed, we said all along that if we could get our execution right, it's there. Those chances on the outside have been there all tournament, but when you don't take them and you're talking about the ones you've lost it's not good.
"A couple of times, we've maybe not backed our hands and not scored. I thought they played fantastically well, Chris Ashton as well, and we made calls by bringing Jonny off the bench and it was a tight game that could have been decided by a drop goal. The spirit was great and some guys really came of age."
The France coach Marc Lievremont rebuilt the side when he took over after the 2007 World Cup and it has not been an easy process. This was his first victory over England in three attempts.
"It is a very nice baby even if the birth was quite difficult," said Lievremont. "For the first time we have reached the end of a series or a tournament and I can be satisfied. We have a Grand Slam to celebrate. I am very proud of this team for the bravery they showed in the 80 minutes.
"It is five victories and a Grand Slam but we have to pay tribute to the England team. It was very difficult and they played their best against us. We owe a lot to our forwards tonight and I am happy for the forwards that Nicolas Mas was named man of the match. No scrum, no win."
England captain Lewis Moody, leading his countyr for the first time, was also disappointed to see his side edged out but admitted France were good value for their win.
"It was a good performance and we should just have finished it off," the Leicester flanker said. "Fair play to France though, they've been the most consistent team in the Six Nations and they're probably deserved winners of this championship, but I'm proud of the boys today.
"They went out there and played their socks off, they worked hard. I think the penalty count probably cost us. We couldn't ask more of ourselves and it's just bitterly frustrating. It was a full squad effort but we just missed it."
Speaking to the BBC, Moody said that leading his country, "was one of the proudest moments of my life without a doubt."
"It was a bizarre feeling coming out in front of all these people and I suppose that makes it even harder when you lose," he said. "I was so proud of the guys today, just frustrated as always."