A rejuvenated France held off England to start their Six Nations with a bang in a 24-17 victory at the Stade de France on Sunday and give new coach Fabien Galthie a confidence-boosting debut.
A year after squandering a 16-0 halftime lead in a 24-19 loss to Wales in Paris, Les Bleus, who were 17-0 up at the interval, held firm to prevent another embarrassing second-half collapse as England sprung into life around the hour.
France captain Charles Ollivon led by example with two tries, one of them debatable, and Vincent Rattez also went over, with the other points coming from Romain Ntamack’s boot.
England threatened a comeback after falling 24-0 behind, with two Jonny May tries converted by Owen Farrell who also slotted a penalty, but it was too late for the World Cup runners-up in their first game since their final defeat by South Africa in Japan.
England coach Eddie Jones had promised his team would unleash “brutal physicality” against the French, but they failed to deliver, the absence of Billy and Mako Vunipola as well as Manu Tuilagi’s early substitution being clearly felt.
Quick on their feet and brilliantly marshalled by scrumhalf Antoine Dupont, France, with only one player over 30 in one of their youngest ever squads, put England on the back foot and defended with discipline and ferocity.
England lacked impact on the gain line and made several handling errors in a worrying display.
Captain Farrell admitted England failed to defend properly, although he denied that mental fatigue was a factor.
“They were more aggressive from the word go, the second half was a bit better but we left ourselves with too much to do,” Farrell said.
Rattez, drafted in on Saturday after Damian Penaud sustained a calf injury, touched down after driving through two England defenders following an initial break from winger Teddy Thomas.
Tuilagi’s replacement by Jonathan Joseph did little to help England on the gain line and things got worse for the visitors when Ollivon made a run to the line after collecting a kick ahead.
England had stopped playing, believing the French captain knocked the ball on before a one-two with Rattez, but the TMO ruled the try should stand and Ntamack converted to open a 17-point lead.
It was the first time England had failed to score a point in the first half of a Six Nations match since 1988, and their biggest deficit at the break since trailing Ireland 23-3 in 2007.
After an early spell of domination in the second half, England conceded another try, Ollivon going over after collecting Dupont’s offload following another fine break by the scrumhalf.
They hit back when May touched down after beating Thomas to the ball following a long kick by Ben Youngs and the winger evaded three tacklers to scorch over again, both tries converted by Farrell to give England hope.
The French stood firm, however, and can now look forward to a game against Italy next weekend with confidence while a wounded England travel to Scotland.