England had swept aside southern-hemisphere opposition Argentina, Australia and New Zealand on the way to being runners-up to South Africa in the global tournament in November.
But the Six Nations is a different beast, full of old enemies and fresh motivation, and a new-look France brilliantly steered by scrum-half Antoine Dupont rammed the pre-match promise of “brutal physicality” from Eddie Jones down the England head coach’s throat.
Without the Vunipola brothers – Billy injured, Mako rested – and with centre Manu Tuilagi forced off early with a damaged groin, England lacked the penetration to hurt a fired-up France given a transfusion of youth after their own World Cup ended with a red card against Wales in the quarter-finals.
It needed two magnificent individual tries by Jonny May midway through the second half just for England to gain a foothold, after they had butchered a stream of great chances to start their Six Nations scoreboard ticking.
The French by then held a commanding lead of 24-0 – including two tries by their dynamic flanker of a captain, Charles Ollivon – and whereas the home team were precise and decisive in attack, Farrell’s men drew a horrible blank from four visits to the opposition 22 in the first half.
The last of the four trundled through 15 phases before the lock Charlie Ewels was stripped of the ball. Before that, England’s new full-back George Furbank fumbled when an overlap was developing; prop Kyle Sinckler was easily stripped, too, and May was thrown a hopeless hospital pass after a slow exchange between Ben Youngs and Jamie George ruined good ground made by Elliot Day.
France’s new English defence coach Shaun Edwards was seen punching the air as the blue jerseys made excellent chop tackles and tore into England with spectacular line speed.
It all meant England were held to their first “nil” in the opening 40 minutes of a Five/Six Nations match since 1988.
It helped France’s esprit de corps that they had a fast start. Teddy Thomas flew past Sam Underhill’s tackle and a sweet and confident switch between Dupont and his stand-off Romain Ntamack put wing Vincent Rattez in at the left corner. Ntamack kicked the conversion and added a penalty just after Tuilagi had limped off, replaced by Jonathan Joseph.
Then Ntamack converted again after France’s controversial second try on 15 minutes. Dupont’s box kick was contested in the air by Courtney Lawes and the French captain Charles Ollivon, and referee Nigel Owens and his video official Brian MacNeice decided the ball bounced backwards off Lawes and not Ollivon’s arm. May hesitated, expecting a whistle from Owens’s body language, Rattez grabbed the ball and skipper Ollivon ran in for 17-0.
England had another long spell of pressure in the opening ten minutes of the second half, but they laboured through a few pick-and-goes, and finally Itoje lost control with his arms exposed, diving for the line.
Dupont made England pay with a short-side dash for Ollivon’s second try, before May chased his own chip to score from 30 metres out, and the Leicester flyer brought up his 29th try in 53 Tests, with a stunning break past Rattez, Ntamack and Bouthier.
At 24-14 down, England might yet have preserved their Grand Slam bid, though Jones’ recently-set goal of the “greatest team ever” was clearly on the back burner. But the good positions kept coming and going. A lost French line-out after Furbank’s clever touch-finder ended with Willi Heinz, on for Youngs, clattered by Cameron Woki. Then, with five minutes remaining, Farrell made a line break and Kruis, fed by Heinz, was stopped from scoring by the much smaller Ntamack and Bouthier. It was brutal, all right, for England.