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England snatch controversial win over France with Itoje's late try

France’s Grand Slam chances ruined after Irish TMO overrules referee to award try to England’s Maro Itoje.

Antoine Dupont scores a first-minute try.
Antoine Dupont scores a first-minute try.
Image: Andrew Fosker/INPHO

England 23

France 20

TWICKENHAM WAS EMPTY except for the echoes and you could only imagine the noise that would have been generated by what we saw here. For this was the best match of the championship, one that looked on a different level to anything else we have seen this year, one that makes you wonder how Wales rather than one of these two sides are chasing a grand slam.

Of course, the Welsh haven’t played played France yet – that dubious pleasure awaits them next Saturday – but despite pulling off a trio of miracle escapes thus far in this tournament, there seems no way that Wayne Pivac’s side will be able to get one over France in Paris.

The brilliance of Les Bleus was visible in the first-half, Antoine Dupont crossing for the game’s opening try on 64 seconds – Teddy Thomas ignoring his defensive frailties to counter-attack at speed; Matthieu Jalibert producing the best footwork London has seen since Fred Astaire was in his pomp.

Their style is so attacking and so cuttingly precise that you could spend an afternoon just watching re-runs of their best moves; that step by Jalibert left the English defence grasping air.

We could go on but to do so would be to ignore the drama that unfolded at the end. Trailing 20-16 with five minutes to go, England turned down a kickable penalty to instead send the ball to the corner, trusting their set-piece to do the job.

It did. Replacement hooker, Jamie George, found his target, the English maul marched the French backwards and then Maro Itoje took over, squeezing his giant frame across the line.

But was he held up? The onfield decision by referee Andrew Brace was yes, that a combination of Teddy Thomas and Cameron Woki had managed to stop Itoje grounding the ball. The television match official – Ireland’s Joy Neville – now entered the conversation and she found the angle that conclusively proved that Itoje had indeed scored. So try, England.

And eventually victory, England. On home soil, haunted by the memories of those unexpected defeats to Scotland and Wales, they played with a relentless energy and whenever they got their big ball carriers on the ball, they caused trouble.

By the end of the first quarter, they had a 13-7 lead – Dupont’s second minute try, created by Thomas’ clever kick over the top, putting France ahead. Then came Anthony Watson’s tenth minute reply, which followed a sustained period of English pressure when they played with power, pace, patience and accuracy. Ten minutes played, the scores were level at 7-7.

anthony-watson-scores-a-try Anthony Watson scores a try. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Two quick penalties from Owen Farrell followed – the benefits of Billy Vunipola’s carries becoming increasingly evident as the half wore on – and the score had moved to 13-7 by the 19th minute.

And at that precise moment, you couldn’t see the pattern of the match switching. England, after all, were kicking smartly and France were most certainly not.

Yet big players find a way to change games. Julien Marchand is one of those. His first-half break didn’t lead to any points but it served as a reminder to both teams that France can never be written off. It was a tone-setter, as much as Jalibert’s 28th minute penalty was a calming moment for the visitors.

Suddenly, the French were dictating things again, having been put on the back foot by England’s first quarter aggression. By 32 minutes they were back in front, Damian Penaud getting his sixth try in 10 tests, an easy finish for the winger, but a brilliant try to observe, Jalibert with the final, floating pass, Dupont inevitably involved in the build-up.

Jalibert’s conversion made it 17-13 to France and when the out-half added a 50th minute penalty following an infringement from Itoje at the breakdown, the gap was extended to seven and questions were again asked of England’s game management.

They had answers, though. Farrell’s third penalty followed a period of sustained English pressure and a piece of indiscipline from Charles Ollivon. The score was 16-20 now, the screw tightening.

A scrum penalty went their way soon afterwards but a subsequent maul from the resulting line out came to nothing when Gregory Alldritt forced a turnover. France could breathe again.

They were beginning to make mistakes, though – fatigue kicking in as the game moved into the final quarter. Increasingly, a number of little victories went England’s way; a remarkable leap by Jonny May that stopped Jalibert’s 62nd minute penalty finding touch; a scrum penalty won on 69 minutes, a breakdown penalty won by Curry on 72.

Then came the decisive moment of the match – Ford deciding to kick to the corner; George firing long from the resulting line-out, England’s set-piece working, Itoje’s long arms getting the ball across the line and down. Their season is saved. France turn their eyes now to winning the championship. The grand slam is something only Wales can do.

England scorers:

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Tries: Watson, Itoje

Conversion: Farrell (2/2)

Penalties: Farrell (3/3)

France scorers:

Tries: Dupont, Penaud

Conversions: Jalibert (2/2)

Penalties: Jalibert (2/2)

ENGLAND: Max Malins; Anthony Watson, Henry Slade, Owen Farrell (capt), Jonny May; George Ford, Ben Youngs ; Mako Vunipola, Luke Cowan-Dickie, Kyle Sinckler; Maro Itoje, Charlie Ewels; Mark Wilson, Tom Curry, Billy Vunipola. Replacements: Jamie George, Ellis Genge, Will Stuart, Jonny Hill, Ben Earl, Dan Robson, Ollie Lawrence, Elliot Daly.

FRANCE: Brice Dulin; Teddy Thomas, Virimi Vakatawa, Gael Fickou, Damian Penaud; Matthieu Jalibert, Antoine Dupont; Cyril Baille, Julien Marchand, Mohamed Haouas; Romain Taofifenua, Paul Willemse; Dylan Cretin, Charles Ollivon (capt), Gregory Alldritt. Replacements: Camille Chat, Jean-Baptiste Gros, Dorian Aldegheri, Cyril Cazeaux, Cameron Woki, Anthony Jelonch, Baptiste Serin, Romain Ntamack

About the author:

Garry Doyle

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