With dramatic first and last tries, France stole a 26-24 win over England on Saturday to restore some Six Nations confidence in a team shaken by last year’s wooden spoon embarrassment.
Right winger Yoann Huget scored the first try after 30 seconds and, after England rallied from 16-3 down to lead 24-19 with four minutes left, centre Gael Fickou collected a pass from fellow substitute Dimitri Szarzewski after the hooker made a superb run down the left. Fickou did the rest, cutting inside his marker and running round behind the posts. Maxime Machenaud kicked the extras.
“We were the first to shoot and the last to shoot,” France coach Philippe Saint-Andre said.
“In the second half we really struggled physically and missed a lot of tackles. But the watchword was to never ease up. In terms of confidence and for 2014 it’s a very important win. We caused the English quite a few problems in the first half. But they attacked us through the middle and made it very hard for us in that zone.”
With its third win in its last 12 tests, France should now avert the wooden spoon with Italy next up at home.
“Last year we had a lot of setbacks, but that’s also what unites a team,” captain Pascal Pape said. “It’s been a long time since I’ve seen the players smiling like that in the dressing room. So let’s savour it tonight and go back to work tomorrow.”
England, runner-up in the last two Six Nations, travels to Scotland next weekend.
England punished weak defending to go within minutes of an improbable victory.
No. 8 Billy Vunipola was the heaviest player on the pitch and England’s most dangerous runner, setting up both tries for fullback Mike Brown and outside centre Luther Burrell on debut as Stuart Lancaster’s relatively inexperienced side carved holes in the French midfield in the second half.
Huget scored two tries for France in the first half.
Both sides are in somewhat of a rebuilding process.
Saint-Andre surprisingly chose scrumhalf Jules Plisson alongside flyhalf Jean-Marc Doussain — both are 22 and had never played together — while Alexandre Flanquart won only his third cap. Winger Jack Nowell also made his England debut.
“We took the challenge of showing these young players the highest level and, believe me, they experienced it,” Saint-Andre said.
Huget brought Stade de France to its feet in the first minute. Plisson’s kick ahead deflected into the path of Huget, who scooped it up and ran into the right corner for an unconverted score.
England charged straight back and, following a period of pressure, England flyhalf Owen Farrell nailed a difficult kick from wide right to make it 5-3. But Doussain slotted over from close range for 8-3.
But it was on the other flank where England struggled, and after a turnover, Doussain kicked ahead. The bounce favoured Huget and his pace took him clear for his fifth international try. Doussain missed the conversion but made amends with a more straightforward penalty kick for 16-3.
Moments before the interval, Brown wriggled his way past three defenders and into the left corner. Farrell missed the conversion and sent a dropped goal wide, leaving France up 16-8 at halftime.
France led at halftime last year at Twickenham before losing 23-13, but this time it held on.
England camped on the French line and, after a try for scrumhalf Danny Care was ruled out, Farrell made it 16-11 with a penalty.
Farrell exquisitely timed a pass for Vunipola to burst through the midfield, and with French players hanging off him he offloaded for Burrell to sprint in for a converted score. Care’s dropped goal from close range made it 21-16 with about 20 minutes left.
Replacement scrumhalf Machenaud slotted a penalty, but Alex Goode responded shortly after to leave France needing a converted try with minutes left.
England left winger Jonny May left the field in the second half with a broken nose, but after Fickou’s late try it was a case of broken English hearts.