With plenty of reports of England’s opening game in the 6 Nations 2014 tournament on offer I’m going to deviate from my normal match report and add even more frilly bits.  Write about the experience as much as the rugby.

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Having been to the Top14 Final in May 2013 I am firmly on the mailing list for the Stade De France; turns out that meant I got my hands on a ticket for the game very easily.  I would say that I’d booked to go and see my daughter who lives in Paris then bought the ticket for the rugby; but I think those that read my reports will know that’d be a porkie!  However it turned out that the trip was more than opportune as a chance to spend time with said daughter!

I tend to get a tad over excited when I have a big sports trip on my calendar, the fact that TalkSport were calling me to speak at 5:30am saw me awake at well before stupid o’clock!  I was sitting in my car and ready to go when the phone call came, my prediction of a French win had me hoping no one was listening!  Having engaged my brain on the whole Eurostar set up I drove to Ebbsfleet, rather than taking a long journey into London, and took my place amongst a load of fellow England fans in the waiting area.  It was a fairly subdued atmosphere at 7am on a Saturday morning.  The Eurostar whisked us to Paris in a mere 2 hours and I walked through to my daughter, oh except she wasn’t quite as excited as me and still in her bed!  90 minutes and a hot chocolate later she put in an appearance.  It gave me a chance to chat to some England fans; what I always find a bit disappointing is how many supporters at the international games have a poor knowledge of the game, when so many dedicated rugby fans can’t get their hands on tickets.

A tip for a visit to Paris for those of you who have never been – they have very few escalators in the Metro!  Take a strong man with you to carry your bag, my overnight trip back contained my bed and various Xmas presents left behind, ooh way too heavy!  Rather than try to cram as much alcohol in as possible (I don’t really drink) my girl and I had a lovely lunch with a glass of wine; a little banter as I had my England top on for the occasion.  Lunch paid for I made my way to the Metro; how convenient that my daughter lives on Line 13 which runs straight to the Stade De France!  I found my seat fairly quickly to find a huge metal barrier spoiling my sight, a tad disappointing!  I’d already experienced how the French do atmosphere at the Stade, and as expected was treated to a DJ playing just the sort of dance music I love.  I’m pleased to say no one ran a mile when they saw my moves!  (subdued ones!)  The teams arrived to much cheering and lined up for the national anthems – I’m afraid I sang both and probably enjoyed Les Marseilles more and the rendition was very nearly as good as the Welsh singing at the Millenium….. But not quite!

And so to the game – having seen Clermont Auvergne, Toulouse and Racing Metro in the flesh this year I was expecting a good performance from the French and felt it was likely to be a huge ask for Les Ros Boeuf!  One possible weakness was in fielding an inexperienced scrum/fly half pairing, the 80 minutes would tell.  I’m now going to try not to write a full match report.  With 32 seconds on the clock after a failed attempt to take the ball from the kick off by England, one of those new boys Jules Plisson put in a neat chip kick which landed in the grateful hands of Yohan Huget who ran in to score.  Oh my, the French fans near me were to say the least over the moon.  Allez Les Blues rang out around the ground. Jean-Marc Doussain missed the conversion leaving the French with a 5 nil lead. Owen Farrell put 3 points on the board after several phases of play saw them win a penalty.  Both wingers showed some promising skills during that run of play.  With just 8 minutes on the clock England’s game play suffered a big blow as Alex Goode came on for Jonny May, it was unclear at that time that May wouldn’t return.  This put Mike Brown into the spot of winger; he’s one of the best fullbacks in the world, but not a winger, I think this had a major impact on the game.  Doussain put the points gap back to 5 after converting a penalty.

England had a great attacking opportunity after Courtney Lawes stole the ball from a French lineout; Billy Twelvetrees chose to kick the ball away with Alex Goode and Mike Brown on his outside facing Huget as a lone defender; a strange decision.  Huget however took his opportunity after Alex Goode went way too high on the tackle on Higet, he ran through passing to Brice Dulin who returned the ball for Huget to run in for a well taken try.  Mike Brown looked to have taken Dulin out as he was running through, had the try not been scored that may have been looked at more closely.  There was some added entertainment on 19 minutes as Tom Wood and Plisson took exception to each other and a few others took their handbags out.  Nigel Owens, surely one of the best referees in the world used his common sense and basically told the captains it wasn’t to happen again.

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France went further ahead to put the scores at 16 to 3 after Doussain converted a penalty.  Both teams made concerted efforts to score, with Yannick Nyanga in particular standing out for the French.  Danny Care made a great run through, getting the ball out to Billy Vunipola, he passed to Mike Brown who went over the line to score his first try for his country in his 22nd game!  Owen Farrell missed the kick but the gap was closed to 8 points, and that’s how the teams went in at half time – France 16 England 8. Watching the game over on the TV as I write this the stats at half time make interesting reading; England carried the ball more and made a lot more metres but a tell-tale statistic of 40 tackles made 9 missed by England is key.

England seemed to have had a rocket inserted somewhere at half time as they came out with more intent; the 8 points felt like a gap that could be easy to close. Danny Care and Billy Vunipola combined beautifully and there was a hope amongst England fans that Care had scored; the verdict by the TMO was however no try; the ball looked to be short in the stadium and it still does on the TV.  The play went back for a penalty and Owen Farrell kicked well to add 3 points.  The French made some early substitutions, amongst them a very fit looking Dimitri Szarzewski – and yes, I do mean that in both ways.  Sorry to be a girl at this point, but it has to be done at times, that is one hooker (of the rugby variety) who can get away with long hair; take note Richard Hibbard, not you!

Luther Burrell, who I think made an impression at outside centre in his first start, benefited from a great run through by Billy Vunipola, he took the pass from Billy V and ran through to score under the posts.  Farell added to extras to put England ahead for the first time in the game.  Danny Care had a chance to show his footballing skills as he charged the ball down, he had the good grace to smile broadly as he knocked the ball on.  Billy V had made an immense tackle on Nyanga in the run up, and no commentators you wouldn’t want to run into Billy!  Care furher proved he can kick the ball as he slotted the ball over the posts for a drop goal on 57 minutes, stretching the England lead to 5 points.  Maxime Machenaud came on at scrum half for the French in a bid to change the pace of play for the home team; in the first of a few puzzling changes Tom Youngs came on for Dylan Hartley who had been performing well.  A further change was made on 61 minutes as Lee Dickson entered the fray, this substitution smacked of a pre-planned move and came at a time when Care had been bossing the game, a wrong move for me, I’m certain he’s capable of playing for 80 minutes!

Mike Brown was at the centre of some more hangbag action as he clashed with Yohan Huget who wouldn’t release the ball; Huget appeared to put his head to Browns’. I’ve just laughed out loud on hearing Nigel Owens tell them ‘you’re both acting very immature, get on and get on with the game!’ Excellent stuff!  Things were going well for England and it really did feel that a win was on the cards, the half was most definitely England’s with 66 minutes on the clock.  Maxime Machenaud closed the gap after England gave away a penalty in the scrum.  The tradition of scrum halves kicking for France continues.  Courtney Lawes and Billy Vunipola had both been substituted by 70 minutes, 2 players who had been making a major impact during the game.  Alex Goode extended the lead as Owen Farrell went down with what looked like cramp after France were penalised for not rolling away.  The score stood at a tense 19 to 24, was I going to be leaving the Stade De France in jubilant mood?

As I and you know how this story ends, the answer was to be no, I’m not prolonging the agony so will fast forward to the try that broke the English hearts!  The aforementioned hooker Szarzewski ran down the wing and passed to Gael Fickou who dummied and ran in to score, not a shoddy few minutes work for the 19 year old.  I’d say he needs to cut out the silly dive; players really need to learn from Sonny Bill Williams Faux Pas during the rugby league world cup when he slipped over the line before he touched down.  And so with an easy conversion the score finished at France 26 England 24.  A thoroughly enjoyable game, and based on two very different halves a game that could have been won by either team.  Positives to be taken by both teams in a 6 Nations tournament where I believe home advantage will be key; I can’t see a Grand Slam on the cards in 2014.

The French crowd were understandably ecstatic after such an awful 6 Nations tournament in 2013.  A tip now for those of you who may go to the Stade De France; don’t leave by the Metro, head to the RER, it took me at least an hour to get on the train, I did however meet some very lovely people,  Mr France – Jean-Claude and Mr England – Peter as we queued!  The Stade De France was an awesome experience, something I’ve always wanted to experience for an England game; I can see I’ll be back!