The sight of Owen Farrell handing out winners’;; medals to his England teammates — having taken 95 minutes and two halves of extra time to put a hugely inexperienced France to bed — was a fitting, surreal end to the most bizarre of years.
This match between England and France saved the Autumn Nations Cup. Two thousand were there to witness by far the best game in this scrambled-together tournament, which somehow got through to completion amid the pandemic.
England were meant to win this match handsomely in what many thought would be a game more one-sided than the caps tally in both teams. This was in effect France’s third-choice XV due to internal selection wrangling, while England named their most experienced line-up.
France’s starting caps numbered 68 caps, England had four players whose sole international experience numbered more appearances. But those bright young things from France appeared to have read comments this week predicting this game to be a “farce” and came prepared as far more than cannon fodder for Eddie Jones’ England.
While France utilised the full depth and breadth of their player pool, England stayed consistent with selection, making just one change after beating Ireland, and then the same after Wales as they prepared for France.
The pack looks settled, but the backs still need to find some cohesion. This was a rare off day for Farrell, while Henry Slade and Jonny May only saw sufficient ball as the game fell into a more expansive affair as fitness levels decreased. Jones said England would have lost this match 12 months ago, but they found a way to win.
France played with a wonderful youthful abandon. England, on the other hand, took 60 minutes to get going and kicked a lot but showed immense character to draw the game level in the final minute of normal time, and then eventually win it with Owen Farrell’s golden point penalty in the second 10-minute spell of extra time.
The rugby this autumn has been mixed. There are correctly fears over its ability to thrill amid ongoing confusion over breakdown interpretation and a lack of uniformity in law implementation.
Eddie Jones responded to that by taking out offloads (England had made just eight in three matches heading into this decider against France), and instead attacked space both on the field and in the air. It worked, with England winning all three of their matches heading into this decider against France.
By Jones’ own admission, it wasn’t meant to thrill but was purely geared towards winning.
However, it seems all the sport needed was a France team with nothing to lose, against an England side who are the best in Europe but still fine-tuning their attack. Jones said England were “a bit off” in the first-half, but they were poor. France punished them with a superb try from Brice Dulin and deservedly led at the break.
England then dominated the second 40 but failed to break down France.
Farrell’s misfiring was also a cause for concern. He missed kicks at the post which he’d normally convert with his eyes closed, and as the clock ticked towards the 80-minute mark, it looked for all the world France would secure a famous victory at Twickenham — their first since 2007 — as they protected their seven-point lead.
But England showed admirable character and tenacity to cross in the 79th minute through Luke Cowan-Dickie, and Farrell then slotted the match-tying kick with half of France charging at him.
Farrell then missed a simple kick to win the game in the first stanza of extra time but England kept their composure and discipline to offer him another chance in the 95th minute.
Jones will take the positives from this: his England side managed to pull this one out of the hat. In the last two years, prior to today’s match, they’ve been behind three times at half-time and lost all three games.
France were magnificent in spells, with Matthieu Jalibert delightful at fly-half. Their outside centre Yoram Moefana was playing his seventh game of senior rugby while scrum-half Baptiste Couilloud captained France in his fifth Test.
Selevasio Tolofua was making his debut. These guys were young in international terms but put in a performance that belied their meagre experience, and highlighted France’s incredible depth as they aim to peak for their home World Cup in 2023.
They will head into the next Six Nations aiming to win, and despite being hamstrung by selection rules, this tournament would have given Fabian Galthie and Raphael Ibanez an invaluable, sweeping view of the talent at their disposal.
England finish 2020 with the Six Nations and Nations Cup to their name. It’s job done for Jones and England but don’t expect them to get complacent. Jones won’t allow that.
He was unusually animated on the touchline as England ground out the win. Winning still matters more than ever and as England continue to adjust and transform to ensure they stay ahead of the chasing pack, the victory gives them the perfect springboard for 2021 but it took guts rather than guile to get them across the line.