Guinness Six Nations
England 23-20 France
A rare Maro Itoje try ended France’s Grand Slam bid, as England left it late to snatch victory in a Guinness Six Nations thriller.
Itoje ploughed over for his third England score in the 76th minute, denying France a first away win at Twickenham since 2005 and the prospect of a Super Saturday showdown with fellow Grand Slam-chasers Wales next week.
Wales are now the last unbeaten side in the Championship and sit nine points clear at the top of table heading into Round 5.
France will be kicking themselves, after a scintillating first half saw Antoine Dupont and Damian Penaud score tries to give them a 17-13 half-time lead.
Anthony Watson celebrated his 50th England cap with a try of his own in the first half, before Itoje’s late show sealed a comeback victory for the hosts.
France may not have played in three weeks but they quickly dispelled any concerns they may be rusty, with a try inside 80 seconds.
Teddy Thomas’ deft chip forwards from 20 metres out was brilliantly chased by Dupont, and the scrum-half clawed it out of the air and touched the ball down to score.
England were overawed by France in the first-half of their 2020 Championship meeting but they responded positively to the early setback here, spending five minutes inside the France 22, and would have scored but for a loose Max Malins pass.
However, France’s reprieve was short-lived as England, in their next attack, created an overlap on the right-hand side and George Ford flashed a quick pass to Watson to dot down.
England, vibrant and playing at a high intensity, were straight back into the France 22 four minutes later and a penalty against the visitors allowed Owen Farrell to kick England ahead.
The captain was back on kicking duties in the 18th minute, converting from the tee again after Romain Taofifenua was caught off his feet at the breakdown, as he banished memories of a poor kicking day against France in the Autumn Nations Cup last December.
In an energy-sapping game, France regained the lead with another wonderful try, cut straight from the training ground.
Julien Marchand’s long lineout throw cleared the jumpers and deliberately hit Gael Fickou in stride, and from there France moved it right, where Jalibert looped a perfect pass for the wide open Penaud to score.
France finished the first half strongly and looked poised to add to their points tally, as Dupont powered his way down to the five-metre line after a Thomas break. But Tom Curry won a crucial turnover and allowed England to see it out until the break, down 17-13.
England huffed and puffed at the beginning of the second half but France’s stood tall, twice winning turnovers inside their own 22, and they took advantage by kicking the first points of the half, courtesy of a Jalibert penalty.
Farrell responded with a penalty of his own in the 54th minute after Charles Ollivon was pinged at the lineout, bringing England back to within four points.
However, the hosts continued to hit a brick wall in the France 22, with the visitors’ defence giving little away, while Ben Youngs also wasted a chance by kicking out on the full when attempting a chip and chase.
After such a breathless first 40 minutes, it was a tall ask for the second to match it and errors began to creep into both teams’ play, with England’s penalty count increasing quickly.
The hosts had the better territory and possession but struggled to make it count, as Shaun Edwards’ well-drilled France defence frustrated them time and again.
However, Itoje smashed his way over the line from just a metre out with four minutes remaining to dash France’s hopes.
The referee initially thought the Saracens man was held up but the TMO showed the ball grazed the try line, giving England the points.
France will look to restore pride and deny Wales a Grand Slam next week in Paris while England head across the Irish Sea with hopes of making it two wins in a row.