Eddie Jones expected to see a brutal display when England travelled to France in the opening round of the 2020 Six Nations – and that is exactly what he got.
The problem for Jones, though, is that his pre-match quote with regards England testing their opponents’ readiness for Test rugby came back to bite him. Badly.
Les Bleus were certainly up to the task. Starting a new era under the stewardship of Fabien Galthie and with defensive expert Shaun Edwards part of the coaching staff, they produced a performance that, after a long period rather stuck in the international doldrums, raises the hope they can rise again. England, in contrast, were as flat as a crepe.
“France can expect absolute brutality from England, we are going to go out there to make sure they understand what Test rugby is. It is about being brutal, it is about being physical and it is about dominating the set piece,” Jones had said in his pre-match media conference.
Yet after stoking the flames ahead of a clash that rarely needs help to catch fire, his players failed to even do the basics expected of your local junior team.
Their first-half display quickly brought back memories of November’s Rugby World Cup final against South Africa, when they suffered a chastening 32-12 defeat that saw an otherwise excellent campaign end in disappointing fashion.
0 – England have failed to score a point in the first half of a 5/6 Nations game for the first time since 1988, while this is their biggest halftime deficit in the tournament since 2007 when they trailed Ireland 3-23 at the break. Blank. pic.twitter.com/HR8xbzZgCn
— OptaJonny (@OptaJonny) February 2, 2020
Disappointing would be a generous description for an error-strewn opening 40 minutes at the Stade de France.
England treated the ball as if if harboured a contagious disease. Debutant George Furbank was diagnosed early with a case of the ‘dropsies’, which was perhaps understandable to a degree. However, the problem even spread as far as the usually reliable Owen Farrell, who failed to hang on to a simple pass in midfield, much to the delight of a raucous French crowd revelling in what they were witnessing.
There was even a penalty given away for failing to mind the gap at a lineout; that is how far things went underground for England.
Still, while the visitors showed all the coordination of a baby giraffe on ice, France produced some slick rugby in slippery conditions to assume total control. They led 17-0 at half-time, while Edwards’ fingerprints were all over an aggressive defensive display that stifled England.
Jones may well have been brutal with his half-time assessment of his team’s performance in the changing room, though England did not really start to show any fight until the immediate aftermath of Charles Ollivon’s second try of the game, as a late challenge on the scorer caused a confrontation with just under an hour gone.
2 – Charles Ollivon is the first captain to score a brace of tries in a @SixNationsRugby match since Gareth Thomas crossed twice for Wales against Scotland in 2006. Skipper. pic.twitter.com/o8g9Xt42lC
— OptaJonny (@OptaJonny) February 2, 2020
Jonny May – one of the few bright lights for the visitors in a dismal outing – crossed twice to reduce the gap, both fine finishes by the wing that demonstrated what England can deliver when they can build from firm foundations.
In the end, though, time scuppered any hopes of a dramatic comeback. France – who had surrendered a 16-point lead to lose on opening weekend a year ago to Wales – stood firm under late pressure near their own line, forcing Farrell to slot over a penalty with the final kick of the contest just to claim a losing bonus point.
After a stirring rendition prior to kick-off, the home support voiced their approval by singing La Marseillaise one more time in the closing stages of a superb 24-17 triumph.
England must now face the realisation that their Grand Slam prospects for this year are over after 80 minutes. Jones fanned the flames with his words in the media, but this rebooted France team let their rugby do the talking.
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