For France, this felt like the start of something, for England, maybe the start of the end for Eddie Jones. I jotted down that line at halftime, and given England’s second half resurgence perhaps such a diagnosis was dramatic, sensationalist. Only time will tell. Either way, England were a long way off emotionally and physically in the first half, whereas France arrived with an intensity, verve and composure that will have surprised many.
Not those who have been following France’s resurgence at youth level though. They have won the previous two World U20 Championships, and had a strong showing in the two years before those successes. Moreover, Racing and Toulouse are two of Europe’s from club sides at present, and both have teams stocked with young, French talent.
A lot is made of World Cup ‘cycles’ in modern rugby. Indeed, it is easy to be skeptical of such talk. But today felt like a crucial tipping point away from Japan 2019 and towards France 2023. England, finalists in the autumn, looked like their efforts in Japan had fatigued them slightly, emotionally more than anything. The Saracens situation cannot have helped things either.
The England captain Owen Farrell denied the World Cup final defeat had any bearing on England’s perfomance today. He is duty bound to say so, of course, but his words did not ring true. Farrell himself had an untimely and surprisingly poor showing, knocking the ball on multiple times in the first half, though he deserves credit for rallying his side in the second half. George Furbank too had a tough day out on his debut, and Tom Curry looked very much like a high calibre openside uncomfortably filling in at number eight.
The absence of Tuliagi, forced off early with an injury, and the two Vunipola’s left England struggling for front foot ball. Johnny May nearly dragged his side back into things with two beautiful, opportunistic and frankly remarkable individual tries, but it was not to be.
England were second to everything, and credit for that has to go to France. The Shaun Edwards effect is easy to overstate, the players have to take his messages on to the pitch, but France were tight, aggressive and organized in defence, uncharacteristically so. They had England rattled. In the pack, the captain Olivion and number eight Aldrich were excellent, with Jefferson Poirot making a huge contribution from the bench.
The standout player, however, was the petit general, scrum half Antoine Dupont. He is an absolutely outstanding talent. So clever, so quick on his feet, capable not only of moments of brilliance such as that mazy run to set his captain away under the posts, but also persistent physicality in defence and the ability to exude the calm needed to see such matches out. His kicking was faultless, bar one utter brain freeze towards the end. In contrast, Ben Youngs and Willi Heinz were both poor.
Dupont is a star, and the French back division is full of them. The difference today was that collectively they had the desire and commitment to repel England defensively, and the physicality up front to match the English pack, in the loose particularly. On this evidence, they are not be underestimated.
Written by Joe Ronan.