THIS was an utterly intriguing, absorbing and captivating international that swung one way and then the other before eventually going right down to the wire.
Leading 16-3 after 20 minutes, the French had an iron grip on proceedings and England’s hopes, possibly even their season, were in tatters.
But Stuart Lancaster’s side are made of stout stuff. They picked themselves up, dusted themselves down and scored 18 unanswered points to take the lead. They grabbed one crucial try just before half-time through Mike Brown and another early in the second half and they must have imagined that they were home and dry leading 24-19 inside the final five minutes.
They were wrong. A rugby match lasts 80 minutes and the French moved the ball about knowing they needed a try and, eventually England were stunned by a sucker punch from replacement Gael Fickou, which snatched the points and the plaudits right at the death.
His 76th-minute score levelled the match at 24-24 and Maxime Machenaud’s conversion gave France a precious home win. Fickou, a centre, had only been on the field as replacement for Mathieu Bastareaud for a couple of minutes.
France raced into an early lead thanks to a brace of scores from winger Yoann Huget inside the opening quarter of the match, the first of which arrived while the latecomers were still in the bar.
France kicked off and England new boy Jack Nowell knocked on. France moved the ball to the right and Jules Plisson, on his Test debut, grubber-kicked the ball behind the English defence. It took a cruel deflection off Billy Twelvetrees’ leg and sat up beautifully for the French winger to score. The clock showed 30 seconds.
Sixteen and a half minutes later the same man struck again and, by this time, Alex Goode had replaced Jonny May after the England winger left the field with a broken nose.
Huget rounded Goode and offloaded to full-back Brice Dulin, who chipped ahead, and Huget was again the beneficiary of a kind bounce which left Twelvetrees and Goode floundering.
If the opening quarter was strange, the entire match was bizarre.
Instead of the usual cagey, set piece, risk-free rugby, the Parisian crowd was entertained by an end-of-season Barbarian spectacular in which both sides not only attacked with the ball in hand but arguably forced the pace a little too much.
As a result, there were numerous turnovers, many of them going to Yannick Nyanga, who filled Thierry Dusautoir’s big boots with a consummate performance.
Both teams forced the pace and the pass, which meant that many were poached by the opposition. It was helter-skelter stuff and utterly unlike anything that we normally witness from these two teams.
Facing a 16-3 deficit, England, after the first quarter, rolled up their sleeves and went to work. Danny Care tapped a penalty in the shadow of the French posts and made good ground. The ball made its way to Brown on the left wing and he still had plenty of work to do, cutting inside a couple of defenders before dabbing the ball down – just.
England started the second half where they had left off in the first, with a score, this time from new boy Luther Burrell just eight minutes into the second 40 after Owen Farrell’s beautifully-delayed pass sent Billy Vunipola through a gap in the midfield and the big centre was on his shoulder to finish off the move.
Farrell’s conversion gave England a lead for the first time in the game and they extended their advantage a little later when Care, with a penalty coming his way, dropped a goal from dead ahead.
England were beginning to believe but this match was far from over. France narrowed the gap with another penalty after their forwards got the nudge on in a scrum. England responded in turn, Goode knocking over a simple effort to restore a four-point lead with seven minutes still to play.
The crowd voiced their appreciation for this breathless entertainment but France saved the best till last. Dimitri Szarzewski injected some pace into the line, Fickou dummied and ran behind the posts and the delighted crowd gave a rousing rendition of La Marseillaise.
Scorers: France: Tries: Huget (2), Fikou. Con: Machenaud. Pens: Doussain (2), Machenaud. England: Tries: Brown,
Burrell. Con: Farrell. Pens: Farrell (2), Goode. DG: Care.
France: Dulin; Huget, Bastareaud (Fickou 74), Fofana, Medard; Plisson, Doussain (Doussain 57); Domingo (Forestier 48), Kayser (Szarzewski 43), Mas Slimani 48), Flanquart (Maestri 43), Pape, Nyanga, Le Roux (Burban 41), Picamoles (Chouly 65). England: Brown; Nowell (Barritt 65), Burrell, Twelvetrees, May; Farrell, Care (Dickson 61); Marler (M Vunipola 51), Hartley (T Youngs 58), Cole, Launchbury, Lawes (Attwood 67), Wood, Robshaw, B Vunipola (Morgan 65).
Referee: N Owens (WRFU). Attendance: 80,000.