Needing a 26-point winning margin to overhaul the Irish after their record-equalling win over Scotland hours earlier, England scored seven tries at Twickenham but also conceded five in a jaw-dropping game that ended one of the most captivating days in the tournament’s history.
The English finished second in the standings – four above Wales on points difference – for the fourth straight year under Lancaster heading to a home Rugby World Cup.
“It’s one of the most courageous performances I’ve seen from the team,” Lancaster said. “It will go down as one of the great games of rugby.”
England racked up a half-century of points against France for the first time, with scrum-half Ben Youngs and winger Jack Nowell each scoring two tries and Anthony Watson, George Ford and Billy Vunipola also crossing. Ford had 25 points.
A converted eighth try would have pushed England past Ireland and there was a chance in the final seconds when the English pack rolled a maul toward the French line, as the Twickenham crowd roared them on. Referee Nigel Owens blew for a penalty for France, though, and seconds later France substitute Rory Kockott kicked the ball dead to end the game.
The French scored a record number of points against the English away from home, and finished fourth.
England had beaten France by the required 26-point margin only on two occasions since the Second World War, in a Six Nations match in 2001 and in a World Cup warm-up in 2003.
It was a huge challenge – especially since France had conceded only two tries in this tournament – but Youngs’ try after 92 seconds made Twickenham believe.
France centre Gael Fickou fumbled under pressure, Jonathan Joseph picked up the loose ball and raced forward before Mike Brown and Ford set up Youngs to get over in the right corner.
The French hit back with 15 points in a six-minute spell that ultimately cost England dear.
Tillous-Borde pounced on turnover ball following Courtney Lawes’ fumble under pressure to sprint 50 meters, easily outpacing prop Dan Cole, for a try. Then Guilhem Guirado passed out to Noa Nakaitaci, and the Fiji-born winger cruised over in the left corner and dotted down, a split-second before planting his boot beyond the dead-ball line. The 18th-minute try needed the say-so of the television match official – and Nakaitaci feared embarrassment at one stage.
With Plisson kicking a penalty, France were suddenly 15-7 up, and England faced a fight just to win the match, never mind the title.
England ended the first half excellently, though, as Haskell popped a pass for Watson to score from close range in the right corner and Youngs nipped in between the posts after Joseph received a quick lineout on his own tryline, and sprinted 60 meters upfield.
England restarted 27-15 ahead – almost halfway to the required 26-point winning margin – but conceded within three minutes when Mermoz crashed over from Guirado’s superb offload.
That fired up the home side, with Ford popping up on the shoulder of Youngs after the scrum-half’s piercing break to go over in the 47th, and Nowell evading two tackles to finish well in the left corner.
Prop Vincent Debaty scored France’s fourth try as England’s James Haskell was in the sin-bin for tripping Plisson, and the teams traded further tries when Vunipola scored from close range and France replacement Benjamin Kayser grounded at the base of a maul.
Nowell’s second try, in the 75th, set up a tension-filled climax but England couldn’t quite complete the job.
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