6N: England topples France to redeem woeful title defense

LONDON (AP) — England redeemed a woeful Six Nations title defense by beating trophy favorite France 23-20 thanks to a late Maro Itoje try in an empty Twickenham on Saturday.

England was heading to a third defeat in four matches until the 76th minute. Replacement prop Will Stuart broke to the line and lock Itoje dived over from the ruck. Referee Andrew Brace decided no try, believing Itoje was held up by flanker Cameron Woki. But Brace asked Television Match Official Joy Neville to review.

Neville said Itoje brushed the grass with the ball and it was a try.

Itoje smiled among his congratulating teammates, a hero again after coming into the game heavily criticized for being the poster boy of the indiscipline that has undone England’s campaign.

France's Grand Slam bid was over, but it was still in title contention with home matches remaining against title rivals Wales, which is unbeaten, and Scotland, which has one loss. But Wales can win the championship next weekend in Paris with a draw.

Doubts about France’s form after a month out of action were dispelled within 80 seconds by a try to star scrumhalf Antoine Dupont, one of 12 players infected in a coronavirus outbreak that caused their game scheduled against Scotland two weeks ago to be postponed.

But England’s response was to finally come out of its shell with its best performance since the 2019 Rugby World Cup semifinal win over New Zealand. It attacked, played at pace, and kept its composure to not concede a penalty until the 24th minute.

Winger Anthony Watson marked his 50th cap with his 22nd test try and England led 13-7 after a couple of Owen Farrell penalties.

But France retook the lead with a brilliant first-phase try to wing Damian Penaud to finish a luminous first half 17-13 ahead.

The second half slowed down as France started to look like it hadn’t played in four weeks and the stubborn English conceded little. An exchange of penalties to the 54th minute maintained the tension as France looked set to win at Twickenham for the first time since 2005.

But England, again, had the last say with shades of the Autumn Nations Cup final about the finish.

In December, a third-string France side led until the last minute when England drew and forced sudden death extra time, where it prevailed. France brought its very best this time, and was expected to win against an England side misfiring in attack and self-control.

France enjoyed a sensational start counterattacking after kicking off. A Teddy Thomas chip was collected by the supporting Dupont for a try after 80 seconds.

The surprises continued as England coolly strung 18 phases together until flanker Mark Wilson was held up between the posts by center Gael Fickou. Another nine phases later, center Henry Slade sliced up the middle and George Ford’s vision gave Watson his try.

A second Farrell penalty had England leading 13-7 and back threatening the French tryline. But Dupont forced a knock-on by opposite Ben Youngs to relieve.

Then it became the Mathieu Jalibert show. Picked ahead of the fit-again Romain Ntamack, the flyhalf missed a try when he couldn’t control a chip in goal by Dupont, but slotted a penalty as compensation.

Then he featured in the brilliant second try that regained France the lead. Fickou grabbed a long lineout throw on the England 22, Jalibert looped around, drew the defense and lobbed to Penaud to score untouched. Jalibert’s second conversion from the sideline made it 17-13 and they weren’t done yet.

Just before the end of a superb half, Jalibert, Thomas and Dupont starred in a counterattack from deep that ended in front of the England tryline where Tom Curry forced a relieving penalty.

The second half didn’t live up to the first as errors crept in, but England ground out a comeback win. It finishes in Ireland next weekend.

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More AP sports: https://apnews.com/apf-sports and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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