France 24-17 England
Following the success of last year’s World Cup, this first game was not what England would have hoped for. Arriving in a rainy Paris, England were unable to lift the mood or counter the spirits of a roaring French home crowd. One commentator described it as an “hostile environment; wonderful atmosphere”. For the French however, the afternoon was simply wonderful.
The game’s beginning mirrored that of a tennis match with the ball soaring from one side of the pitch to the other. While this prevented an intense onslaught of French aggression, it gave England only disjointed possession. The England team came off badly, with a number of important dropped catches across the field. Within five minutes the French had scored their first try as a result of a spilt ball and missed tackle by England. The French were looking strong in comparison to a fumbling English side.
The home team retained a good form through recycling the ball out of the rucks and quickly forcing a scrambling England into mistakes that resulted in penalties. The English side struggled to offer a cohesive response as players threw themselves into mauls with little view as to where the ball would go next.
The second French try was scored in the twentieth minute amidst much dismay and confusion. The visitors had presupposed a knock-on that had not actually happened and so had given up, letting the French run straight through their defences.
The first half well and truly belonged to the French, who forced eight handling errors from England to their three. Nigel Owens, the popular Welsh referee, explained that the French had “more urgency, more dynamism, (and thus) more points” than the English.
The first half ended on 17-0; the biggest half time lead France has had since 2004 (a game which they went on to win), while it was the first time that England have not scored a point in the first half since 1988 – a damning indictment on the side’s performance.
The look on captain Owen Farrell’s face said all that needed to be said for a review of the first half: annoyance and disparagement. However, the second half came with a few more positives for Eddie Jones’ side, although not enough. It started with another try from the French flanker Charles Ollivon to widen the home side’s lead. Ten minutes later though this was followed up by an individually strong effort from Englishman Johnny May. He saw a gap, kicked, and chased, scoring England’s first try of the game 56 minutes in. Cementing his place as England’s best player of the afternoon, May scored his second try soon after, and while Farrell was able to convert the tries, England could do little to catch the French; by this time, they had earnt an unassailable lead.
While English discipline was poor and unity was lacking, the English scrum was promising. Yet this was probably the most that can be said of the English achievement. The French put in a stellar shift, capitalising on England’s failure to deal with a wet ball and their inability to withstand the roar of a French home crowd. Hopefully, good form will return to England. Fans of the game will also hope that the French can retain this level of performance to make the Six Nations more competitive than games that have taken place in the past.