Six Nations 2014: Fickou seals dramatic late France victory over England
France 26 England 24: Les Bleus strike late to deny the Red Rose victory at Stade de France on Saturday night
Teenage centre Gael Fickou came off the bench to break England hearts as his late try saw France squeeze to a thrilling 26-24 Six Nations victory in Paris.
France had led 16-3 after just 17 minutes thanks to two tries from Yoann Huget but England roared back through first international scores from Mike Brown and Luther Burrell, who touched down on debut.
A Danny Care drop goal and a penalty from replacement Alex Goode had given England a 24-19 lead with the clock ticking down but after host of phases, Fickou went clear down the left.
And France’s replacement scrum-half Maxime Machenaud was on target with the conversion to seal a dramatic win for Les Bleus – just their second in their last eight Six Nations matches against England.
France got off to the best possible start and had the first try of the match after just 30 seconds, Yohan Huget collecting fly-half Jules Plisson’s kick through to dive over.
It was a fine contribution from debutant Plisson which came in stark contrast to England’s Jack Nowell, whose first involvement in Test rugby was to knock-on the kick-off.
From there, the ball was spread to Plisson who kicked through and the bouncing ball found Huget who had the simplest of finishes.
Scrum-half Jean-Marc Doussain missed the conversion and while Owen Farrell registered England’s first points with a fifth-minute penalty, Les Bleus’ tails were up in the Stade de France.
Things got worse for the visitors when they lost left winger Jonny May after just eight minutes to what appeared to be a broken nose and France extended their lead on ten minutes through a Doussain penalty after England came in at the side.
England were shell-shocked and whenever they attempted to mount presssure the ball went to ground or possession was wasted – Billy Twelvetrees and Billy Vunipola were both culpable.
And France extended their advantage on 17 minutes when Huget had his second of the game, again taking advantage of the fortuitous bounce.
It came from a turnover from the impressive France flanker Yannick Nyanga and Les Bleus worked the ball to the right flank were Huget found the supporting full-back Brice Dulin inside.
Dulin kicked ahead and Nowell’s debut proceeded to get worse as the bouncing ball evaded him and fell perfectly to Huget who splashed over in the right-hand corner.
Again Doussain missed the conversion, ensuring France’s lead was 13-3 and after England were pinged at scrum-time on 22 minutes, it soon became 16-3.
England grew into the game however and a rare foray into the French 22 saw Mike Brown offload out of the tackle to Goode, who darted down the blindside and threatened to break clear, only for some desperate French defending to force the knock-on.
That spurred the visitors and they had their score on 36 minutes after a quick-tap from scrum-half Care.
The Harlequins livewire was held up five metres short of the line but while acting scrum-half Dylan Hartley threw a loose pass, Vunipola gathered and fed Brown, now on the left wing in May’s absence, who jinked his way over for his first England try in his 22nd appearance.
Farrell missed the conversion however and he was off target with a drop goal attempt on the stroke of half-time, giving France a 16-8 lead at the interval.
But England came out for the second half with a spring in their step and set about laying siege to the France try-line. Les Bleus held firm -Care was inches from the try-line – but it came at the cost of a penalty for offside and Farrell trimmed the deficit to five.
England kept coming and while France were continuing to enjoy the better of the breakdown, the visitors had their breakthrough on 49 minutes when Saracens battering ram Vunipola burst through the middle and fed Burrell on his inside for a debut score under the posts.
Farrell added the simple conversion but back came France and Huget raced down the right, prompting some scrambled defence from England to deny him a hat-trick.
Care came close to scoring for the second time but he couldn’t gather the ball from his chargedown but on 56 minutes, with referee Nigel Owens playing advantage, he did nail a drop goal to extend England’s lead.
Try as they might however, England couldn’t give themselves the cushion they wanted – Farrell carried the charge but lacked supported while the Red Rose lost a lineout in the French corner when well-placed.
France were enjoying the better of the scrum and after a powerful drive on 70 minutes, replacement scrum-half Machenaud closed the gap to just two a 21-19.
But England were handed the chance to restore their five-point lead and while Farrell was nursing an injury, Goode made no mistake.
France were not finished however and 19-year-old centre Fickou, who came the bench on 74 minutes, dotted down three minutes later before Machenaud sealed the victory.