Sunday’s 24-22 victory over Philippe Saint-André’s French side propelled them into second place and, rather more remarkably, meant that Stuart Lancaster’s men became the first England side to win three Six Nations matches away from home.
Beating the French in the Stade de France, where the home side have not lost since 2008, is a great gauge of skill, character and resilience, but trips to Murrayfield and the Stadio Olimpico also proved to be significant tests of England’s mettle and should not be undervalued.
With pre-match talk centred on the candidacy for the England manager role, many presented this game as little more than Lancaster’s audition for the job.
England’s hopes for a tournament triumph had gone, with France the only real competition for Warren Gatland’s Welsh juggernaut, so how they fared was a almost a side-serving for Lancaster’s potentially defining moment.
For this young England team, however, it meant much more than that.
In an exhilarating first half, England banished doubts surrounding their attacking play with two tries of clear international class.
First, Manu Tuilagi benefitted from the strength of Chris Ashton and quick-thinking of Owen Farrell to burst down the wing to score, before the bruising Ben Morgan beat several flailing Frenchmen to feed the onrushing Ben Foden.
As France threatened to kick their way back into contention in the second half, Tom Croft surged between Aurélien Rougerie and Imanol Harinordoquy in a gazelle-like burst reminiscent of his days on the 2009 Lions tour.
It was a testament to the Leicester flanker’s character that he was the first to acknowledge his recent poor performances, but he was back to his athletic best in Paris.
Croft was one of England’s key performers on the day, joined by Farrell and props Alex Corbisiero and Dan Cole.
The two may differ hugely in style, as well as appearance, but the combination of the two is working well, with Corbisiero’s running in the loose complemented by the robust Cole’s aggression in the tight.
France’s diminutive props Jean-Baptiste Poux and Nicolas Mas threatened in the scrum but Corbisiero and Cole were up to the challenge.
Farrell, meanwhile, continues to go from strength to strength.
The width of the upright stood between him and an immaculate kicking display while he showed his fearsome defence throughout the match. Some wayward kicks from hand serve to show there is still room for improvement in his game, but for a 20-year-old appearing in his first Six Nations England could not have hoped for more.
If there was cause for concern, it was perhaps in between tries when England wildly swayed between the careless to the more worrying.
As France built momentum and sought the lead, England quickly racked up the penalty count as well as the missed tackles. Impossible passes were thrown and where the defence was once so solid the French were finding holes.
The breakdown also remains a problem. Chris Robshaw battled manfully, and it’s difficult to criticise the man who has led his side so well, but England have fallen behind in the back row stakes in a tournament where the openside has thrived.
The French were certainly no angels and in this department, where the playing of referee Alain Rolland was critical, one feels a more canny breakdown operator might have worked his way onto the side of the Irishman.
And so what of Lancaster?
The powers at the RFU continue to bumble through the decision-making process, with seemingly only South African Nick Mallett left to fight the current incumbent for the permanent job.
Mallett’s credentials are clear and put him at an advantage to Lancaster in this category, though Lancaster’s current audition process will prove invaluable.
Questions still linger on Lancaster’s tendency to tinker with key positions while the game lies in the balance, and England were certainly aided by some sloppy French defending, but following the defeat to Wales two weeks ago many would feel England were due some fortune.
Lancaster would not be drawn on whether the Parisian victory would improve his chances of landing the job, but his knowing grin which followed confirmed what we all suspect.
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