England head coach Stuart Lancaster insists Wales, who shattered his side’s RBS Six Nations dream last year, now provide the inspiration to stage a championship fightback.
France were installed as favourites to relieve Wales of their crown after a late converted try, brilliantly finished by the dancing feet of Gael Fickou, inflicted a 26-24 defeat on Lancaster’s men in Paris.
The loss means England must win all four of their remaining games, starting with Saturday’s visit to Scotland, to improve on their two successive second-placed finishes. And a defiant Lancaster reacted to the Stade de France setback by reminding his players that in 2013 Wales were edged by Ireland in their Cardiff opener yet went on to successfully defend their title.
“Wales lost in the first game last year and won the championship, don’t forget that. That’s what I told my players after the game,” he said. “France will be a tough side to beat, but championships aren’t won in the first round.
“We’re disappointed to have lost and that’s probably a reflection of where we are in terms of our expectation.”
Only three and a half minutes were left when Fickou’s footwork outwitted the cover defence to take him under the posts, giving Maxime Machenaud the easiest of match-winning conversions.
Having controlled long spells and seemingly dictating the final stages of a chaotic and gripping contest, England were stunned to have slipped behind.
With a trip to Edinburgh looming on Saturday, the challenge facing Lancaster is to lift spirits as quickly as possible. “It will be difficult to pick the players up initially, but I’m confident of the impact it will have when I show them the tape of the game,” he said. “We showed great character, but the skill and execution and lines of running were also good.
“We’ll take plenty of positives from that and we’ll be able to get them in the right place because clearly Scotland away is a massive game.”
There was much to praise in England’s performance as they once again drew on their reserves of character to turn a 16-3 deficit into a 24-19 lead, but, as Lancaster accepted afterwards: “We need to win big games”.
Lancaster’s own involvement left him open to criticism, however, due to his baffling decision to replace Danny Care with Lee Dickson in the 62nd minute. Care’s drive and cunning were the heartbeat of England’s attacking game and the alert Harlequins scrum-half fell fractionally short of crossing the line before kicking a drop-goal.
It came as a surprise when he was withdrawn. “It wasn’t a predetermined substitution, but he hasn’t played that many minutes between now and the autumn internationals,” Lancaster said. “We felt Lee Dickson would come on and bring energy and momentum to our game, and work defensively as well.
“This level is a step above Premiership and European rugby. You see players begin to fade, and then you look at what you have on your bench.”
England were hampered by the ninth-minute departure of wing Jonny May with a broken nose. Adding to their misfortune were the cruel bounces on which wing Yoann Huget capitalised to score twice inside the opening quarter.
But the wounds were also self-inflicted as mistakes in the build-up contributed to both of Huget’s tries, the first of which arrived after just 31 seconds. “Although the bounce of the ball didn’t go our way on both occasions, we can’t knock on from the first kick-off and put ourselves under pressure,” Lancaster said. “We need to be better at starting the game because that’s twice now… it was the same thing against New Zealand last autumn.
“We’ve won a lot more games than we’ve lost over the last couple of years, so I don’t think it’s consistent in our game that we put ourselves in these positions. But when you are in the position to win, you want to close the game out and we didn’t do that.”
Scorers: France: Tries: Huget 2, Fickou. Con: Machenaud. Pens: Doussain 2, Machenaud. England: Tries: Brown, Burrell. Con: Farrell. Pens: Farrell 2, Goode. Drop goal: Care.
France: Dulin; Huget, Bastareaud, Fofana, Medard; Plisson, Doussain; Domingo, Kayser, Mas, Flanquart, Pape, Nyanga, Le Roux, Picamoles. Replacements: Fickou for Bastareaud (74), Machenaud for Doussain (57), Forestier for Domingo (48), Szarzewski for Kayser (43), Slimani for Mas (48), Maestri for Flanquart (43), Burban for Le Roux (41), Chouly for Picamoles (65).
England: Brown; Nowell, Burrell, Twelvetrees, May; Farrell, Care; Marler, Hartley, Cole, Launchbury, Lawes, Wood, Robshaw, B. Vunipola. Replacements: Barritt for Nowell (65), Dickson for Care (61), M. Vunipola for Marler (51), T. Youngs for Hartley (58), Attwood for Lawes (67), Morgan for B. Vunipola (65).