- England defeated by late Gael Fickou try at Stade de France
- Lancaster's side had surged back from 13-point deficit to take lead
France 26 England 24
Teenage replacement Gael Fickou scored a last-gasp try to defeat resolute England in the RBS 6 Nations opener at the Stade de France.
With England leading by five points – surging back from a 13-point first-half deficit – and the clock ticking down, the Toulouse youngster swept clear down the left and dummied in under the posts.
Fellow replacement Maxime Machenaud stepped up to slot the simple conversion to break the visitors’ hearts and send to crowd into raptures with a first victory over England in three attempts.
Yoann Huget scored a rapid-fire brace to put France into an early lead only for England, led by the fearless carrying of No.8 Billy Vunipola, to get back into contention with Mike Brown’s first Test try before half-time and then take the lead for the first time in the game on 47 minutes when Luther Burrell scored on his debut.
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England’s unchanged pack, from excellent scrum half Danny Care’s probings, controlled vast swathes of the second period only for France – built on the foundations of a dominant scrum – to snatch victory at the death.
Huget opening the scoring in the first minute, benefitting from a fortuitous bounce from debutant fly half Jules Plisson’s kick after France won the ball back from their kick-off and fizzed the ball wide.
The Toulouse wing dived over with glee – his domestic colleague Jean-Marc Doussain could not add the difficult touchline conversion – to instigate a lung-bursting passage of end-to-end play in the opening quarter.
England hit back within five minutes as Farrell sent a penalty sailing through the uprights to reward a series of aggressive carries from the pack, with Vunipola continuing his impressive form from the autumn.
Play switched to the other end and after England illegally halted a France catch-and-drive, Doussain extended the lead back to eight points with a smoothly struck penalty. And on the quarter hour mark, a minute of play ensued which summed up the frenetic nature of the opening 20.
First 120-kilogram France centre Mathieu Bastareaud forced Alex Goode – on as a blood replacement for Jonny May at the time – to collect and run into touch deep in his 22, only for England to turn the ball over after the lineout. Billy Twelvetrees countered with a kick of his own, which forced Huget to race back and send a hurried clearance of his own into touch.
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But moments later, Huget scored a thrilling second which encapsulated French traditions of lightning counter-attack play on turnover ball. Tom Wood lost the ball in contact against opposite number Yannick Nyanga and when the ball was shifted the through the hands, Huget stood-up and beat Goode on the outside before passing to full back Brice Dulin. His deft kick ahead again bounced perfectly for the wing to put the hosts into a 13-3 lead.
After all that running rugby, it was time for the front-rowers to get involved and turn the screw on England. Doussain extended the lead to 13 points on 21 minutes with the visitors looking shell shocked.
But there is a genuine resolve about this England team under Lancaster as his side racked up 18 unanswered points to haul themselves back into contention. After neat interplay from Courtney Lawes, Mike Brown and Goode nearly produced a try down the left, Harlequins man Brown grabbed his maiden Test score on the stroke of half time.
Care – a dangerous running threat throughout – made the position with a spiky tap-and-go penalty, Vunipola delivering the scoring pass for Brown to power over in the corner. Farrell could not add the conversion to leave the score at 16-8 at the break.
England’s forwards looked tired before Brown’s try but appeared buoyed by the chance to get back into game and came out all guns blazing in the second half. After powering into French territory from the kick-off, Care was only denied a sixth Test try after a long deliberation from the TMO and after referee Nigel Owens went back for a penalty, Farrell trimmed France’s advantage to five.
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And on 47 minutes, England took the lead for the first time in the game, Vunipola delivering his second scoring pass of the match. The huge back rower charged through the line and offloaded to the supporting Burrell, who was engulfed by England’s replacements after racing in for a try on debut.
Farrell added the extras to make the score 18-16 but moments later Joe Launchbury has to be at his athletic best to deny dangerman Huget down the right. But that was a rare second-half foray from the French as Graham Rowntree’s forwards continued to exert their influence.
From one such drive deep into French territory, Care nonchalantly slotted over a drop goal to extend the lead to five. The visitors were on top and looked more like to score from open play, with Care, Vunipola and debut wing Jack Nowell – who made 87 metres with ball in hand – looking dangerous.
France’s best route back into the game looked via the scrum, which had been dominant all evening. With England’s scrum back-pedalling on with 10 minutes to play, Machenaud trimmed the lead to two with an easy penalty, only for Goode to re-establish the five-point margin with a penalty of his own on 72.
A late, match-winning try looked unlikely but when the relentless Nyanga broke clear with a barrelling break down the right, the field position was there for Fickou to win the game in on the opposite flank.
Ultimately, England left themselves too much to do and although they threatened their best ever comeback in a Test match – the previous best remain a surge back from 12 points down to defeat Australia at Twickenham in 2002 – will find the defeat difficult to take.
But as Lancaster said in the aftermath, there are overwhelming positives to take forward to Scotland at Murrayfield next Saturday.
France vs England teams
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).
Referee: Nigel Owens (WRU)
Touch judges: Alain Rolland (IRFU) Stuart Berry (SARU)
TV: Jim Yuille (SRU)