In defeat France were bold and confident

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Brice Dulin scores for France on a day when they ran a full-strength England closer than anyone would have predicted – AP

There was never any real danger that Le Crunch would turn into Le Collapse. England might have been 17-point favourites at the bookies but one glance at the French team arriving at Twickenham looking as if central casting had hired them from Reservoir Dogs – all suited, booted and mean-machined – would have told you that this was a French team that would be true to the grand traditions of this fixture.

There was snap and edge and spark in every exchange. It was fitting that they were only denied by the narrowest of margins in sudden death extra-time. A golden-point triumph for England, France sinking to their knees as if Owen Farrell’s boot had landed in their solar plexus and not on the ball, the wind taken right out of them. There had been no non-believers in French ranks. To England, the silverware, to France the plaudits. Their time will come.      

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Fly-half, Matthieu Jalibert, jinked and dinked. Lock, Baptiste Pesenti, thudded and thumped. Captain, scrum-half, Baptiste Couilloud, was a raging presence throughout on his first start for his country. Full-back, Brice Dulin, soared into the skies to field each and every high ball that came his way. And a lot came his way. Air traffic control at Heathrow probably had to issue warnings to planes to avoid the Twickenham flight-path such was the English aerial bombardment. The 2,000 fans allowed must have fixed feelings at various points. At least the 400 NHS staff admitted to the Royal Box would have been on hand to treat all those cricked necks.  

Every tackle, every turnover, was celebrated by Les Bleus as if Paris itself had been liberated. There had been fears that this would be a French farce. Instead it was a French call to arms, La Marseillaise with studs on. It was just as well for England that France’s 1st XV hadn’t crossed the Channel to do battle.     

There will be no patronising pats on the head when French return in March for the 2021 Six Nations championship. One other tradition was upheld when the visitors found themselves on the end of unsympathetic refereeing from Andrew Brace. The Irishman cut them no slack at all. France were hard done by.  

France erected a Maginot Line defence during their hugely impressive performance against England  - AFP
France erected a Maginot Line defence during their hugely impressive performance against England – AFP

This is a rivalry that is shaping up to be a focal point right through to the 2023 World Cup in France. This may have been France’s third team on display but many of them have won junior World Cups for their country. They are used to being on podiums. There is no inferiority complex in their genes, no inner taunting whispers that it is 10 years since last they won a championship. What riches they have. What depth. All of which is great news for European rugby and for the next World Cup. The game needs a strong France, all bristle and bustle.      

They may have been callow – 68 caps to 813 in England ranks, the second most inexperienced side ever fielded by France – but they had been schooled by a trio of the most street-wise hard-nuts in the game – Fabien Galthie, Raphael Ibanez and Shaun Edwards, the Wiganer responsible for erecting a Maginot Line defence, seen tellingly just before half-time when England hammered themselves into futility, going through 13 phases within inches of the French try-line before Ellis Genge was forced into a knock-on. It was a seminal moment, proof that there would be no wilting, no waning.  

By extra time Galthie was down pitch-side, yelling and gesticulating as if he were back on the field of play himself, Le Petit General. His troops were doing him proud.

France finish the year in a much better place than they had embarked on it, their opening weekend victory over England (the last defeat for Eddie Jones’ side) notwithstanding. At that point the French renaissance was no more than bullet points in a notebook, a masterplan put together by Galthie and Ibanez. They wanted to create a new French identity, not one of occasional frills and flair, but of solid foundations and clear game-plan strategy. In that regard this performance was a vivid illustration that those roots have been well and truly established. France IIIs played as the first team would. Apart from a few wobbles in the scrum, there was nothing to choose between those teams apart from the sparkle and class that an Antoine Dupont or Virimi Vakatawa would provide.

The esprit de corps was there to be seen throughout the afternoon, in the boldness of their demeanour and the confidence of their play. The last time France had been at Twickenham they had shipped 44 points. This, though, is France re-born. And for that we can all be grateful.