England withstood the stiffest of examinations from a revitalised France on Saturday but, thanks to the goalkicking of Owen Farrell and a try by Manu Tuilagi, emerged 23-13 winners of their Six Nations clash at Twickenham.
England trailed 10-9 at the break after a brilliant individual try by centre Wesley Fofana but Owen Farrell’s superb goalkicking and a fortuitous Tuilagi score put them ahead and they eventually finished in control with two more Toby Flood penalties as France’s replacements’ policy backfired.
The home side, seeking their first grand slam since 2003, lead the standings with six points from three wins. Wales are second on four, after beating Italy earlier on Saturday, while Scotland, Ireland and Italy each have two points with France in last place having lost their first three games for the first time since 1982.
“We were a little bit slow coming out of the blocks and they scored a brilliant individual try,” England captain and man of the match Chris Robshaw told the BBC.
“But credit to the guys, we stuck at it and when we got our attack going we found space.
“All games are won in the last 20 minutes, we got a couple of penalties and it gave us a bit of daylight.”
France will wonder how they lost the game after dominating for long periods. They were unrecognisable from the team beaten by Italy and Wales in their opening games, not just because coach Philippe Saint-Andre had brought in seven new players.
The French were switched on and fired up from the start, relishing the physical challenge and laying down an early marker with a massive shunt in the scrum as they sought what would have been only their third championship win at Twickenham in 26 years.
SUPERB INDIVIDUAL TRY
England, looking far less cohesive than in their opening wins over Scotland and Ireland, somehow led after half an hour with two Farrell penalties to one from the recalled Morgan Parra but the French deservedly went ahead with a superb individual try by Fofana.
A lonely figure on the wing in the first two games of the championship, he was a reborn force back in his normal centre position and showed all his sparkling footwork and body strength to score a 60-metre individual try. England’s coaches will not have been impressed by the five attempted tackles he shrugged off to make the score but it was nevertheless a classic piece of French individualism to crack open a tight encounter.
England failed to come close to threatening the French line in the first half but another Farrell penalty sent them into the break 10-9 down.
Parra missed penalties either side of halftime and another nerveless shot by Farrell hauled England into the lead eight minutes into the second half.
They stretched it further soon afterwards with their only try after the French failed to deal with a high kick and the ball bobbled fortuitously via Tom Wood to Tuilagi, who scooped it up and galloped home.
France brought on Frederic Michalak for Francois Trinh-Duc at flyhalf and he was quickly into the action, landing a penalty, while England lost their points machine as Farrell injured himself in the act of missing another penalty shot and was replaced by Toby Flood for the final quarter.
There were a rash of other changes and they worked in England’s favour as France removed some of their key performers while England’s fresh legs gave them a clear lift.
England duly wrested control of the game and Flood did the damage on the scoreboard with two well-struck penalties as France ran out of ideas and energy.
“I thought our control grew in the game,” said Lancaster. “Our defence was fantastic. It wasn’t exactly how we had planned but it was a proper test match.”
England next face Italy at Twickenham, ahead of their Cardiff finale and potential title decider against Wales.
France, who began the tournament as narrow favourites, face a tough trip to Ireland.