France confounds expectations to beat favorite England 24-17
PARIS (AP) — New-look France confounded expectations by turning the tables on tournament favorite England, winning their heated Six Nations opener 24-17 on Sunday.
England coach Eddie Jones bragged that the fledgling French side would struggle to cope with his side's “brutality.” After all, England reached the World Cup final last November and Fabian Galthié is completely rebuilding his side.
Instead, France stunned England with its aggression, roared on by a Stade de France crowd hardly expecting an accomplished display from a squad featuring nine players aged 23 or younger and two new caps. Only one French player was over the age of 27, only one had 50 caps.
Yet France tore up the script.
Irrepressible flanker Charles Ollivon, the new captain, scored two tries and his second sparked a mass brawl that saw players from both sides tumbling and spilling into the advertising boards as they grappled.
Referee Nigel Owens had a stern word with the captains. The score after 54 minutes of toe-to-toe combat was a scarcely believable 24-0.
“It was a big lead, so we expected a reaction from England and it came,” Galthié said. “But we stuck together and you have to give credit to these players.”
England responded as right winger Jonny May — France's Twickenham tormentor with a hat trick last year — sprinted over for two tries to bring England within 10 points with 15 minutes to go.
Last year, France led 16-0 at halftime against Wales before losing to the eventual champion and also lost 44-8 to England.
But this side looks more resolute and Owen Farrell's last-gasp penalty gave England the scant consolation of a bonus point.
France caught England napping after five minutes.
Scrumhalf Antoine Dupont fed speedy right winger Teddy Thomas, who broke two tackles near the line. France switched the ball left along the line and flyhalf Romain Ntamack teed up right winger Vincent Rattez with a clever reverse pass inside, then converted.
Rattez was picked because Damian Penaud injured his calf in training and he was involved in France's second try, scored by Ollivon after 19 minutes.
Ollivon appeared to knock on when he challenged flanker Courtney Lawes for a high ball. It bounced to Rattez, who then fed it back to Ollivon to sprint home down the left.
Owens allowed the try after a video replay appeared to show the ball had hit Lawes' hand before it diverted to Rattez.
Ntamack, who also slotted over a penalty, expertly converted from wide on the left.
After 20 minutes, France led 17-0 and Jones was eating his words and the damage was being felt by his players.
Farrell clutched his shoulder after tangling with Virimi Vakatawa under a high ball and Farrell's midfield partner Manu Tuilagi went off injured early, replaced by Jonathan Joseph.
England wasted a chance right on halftime, going through 13 phases before turning over.
Their pride stung, England's players formed a huddle on the pitch.
With good reason, since it was the first time England had been held scoreless in the first half of a championship game since 1988.
They came back out all fired up.
After the French fluffed a lineout, England burrowed forward left and right for several phases but the blue line held firm.
Then, on a counterattack, France scored a third try after superb work from Dupont.
Ollivon rose high to bat down a lineout. The ball reached the slippery Dupont, who carved his way through the midfield and released Ollivon. The rampaging flanker was tackled near the line but had enough momentum to cross the line.
After the ensuing brawl, prompted by Luke Cowan-Dickie's late tackle slide on Ollivon, England finally got on the scoreboard when May latched onto scrumhalf Ben Youngs' grubber kick and Farrell converted.
May's second was superbly taken as he drifted in from the right and ghosted past three defenders.
Nerves threatened to get the better of France and may well have done if George Kruis had scored with a few minutes left, but he was turned over when crossing the line and Galthié's men had the reprieve they worked so hard for.
"It's hugely enjoyable because we feel that we're creating something here, and that's the basis for everything," Ollivon said. “We forced ourselves to stay calm during the day so as not to feel the emotion too much and stay focused on our performance.”
Italy, routed 42-0 by defending champion Wales, will hardly be looking forward to next Sunday's trip to Paris.
It was a brutal reality check for Jones, who must pick his dejected players up for Saturday's trip to face Scotland at Murrayfield.
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