England 23 France 20: Super Maro gives England late relief

MARO ITOJE’S discipline has been called into question of late but the England lock delivered in the perfect manner just when his country needed him most tonight to snatch a crucial win over France.

England's Maro Itoje scores in the 76th minute and Ellis Genge celebrates as his side edge close to victory at Twickenham Stadium (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)
England's Maro Itoje scores in the 76th minute and Ellis Genge celebrates as his side edge close to victory at Twickenham Stadium (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

It is not crucial in terms of the Six Nations championship; his side’s hopes of retaining that had already long gone following disappointing defeats to Scotland and Wales.

However, if Eddie Jones’ side had fallen to a third loss in four outings ahead of next Saturday’s finish in Dublin, the pressure on the coach and side would have risen to all new levels.

And it did look like England - despite some fine play in the first period - would succumb today, increasingly looking devoid of spark as they battered away against a confident France team seeking to push on for a Grand Slam.

However, with the score locked at 20-16 in the closing stages and having barely had an attacking sniff in the second period, the hosts managed to get a driving maul rumbling close.

From there, the defiant Itoje managed to edge over, just managing to get the ball down in the 76th minute as France were at last pierced, Owen Farrell improving before his side held on.

With Tom Curry excelling once more at openside and Anthony Watson impressing on his 50th Test appearance, England had some class players on show but the dejected Les Bleus will rue this missed opportunity.

They started and finished the first half confidently, scoring after just 67 seconds when winger Teddy Thomas quickly found space down the left and chipped infield for scrum-half Antonie Dupont to finish.

Julien Marchand of France makes a break during the Guinness Six Nations match between England and France at Twickenham. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Matthieu Jalibert, the fly-half who would go on to exude such confidence, converted but England soon got into their own stride.

They applied pressure to the French line and, though they wasted a chance when Max Malins - the full-back making his first start in place of Elliot Daly - unnecessarily rushed a pass forward to Watson, they soon levelled in the tenth minute.

Prop Mako Vunipola demonstrated deft hands in the middle to put Henry Slade free and, at the next phase, George Ford also showed Malins how it is done, keeping his poise to arrow a perfect final pass for Watson to mark his 50th cap with a score.

Farrell converted from the touchline and added a penalty when Curry, not for the last time, caused chaos for the French at their breakdown.

Watson danced infield with a brilliant run as England continued to be bold and, though France covered when the winger chipped ahead, they were soon further behind, Farrell slotting another kick after they were penalised when in possession for a second time.

The omnipotent Curry charged down Dupont’s attempted clearance kick to leave France rattled once more but they managed to recover.

Jalibert should have scored at the other end when racing on to a more precise Dupont chip but he fumbled when trying to get the ball down.

Nevertheless, his side were awarded a penalty which he duly slotted.

When Malins was caught isolated after Ford threw a quick line-out to him, France kicked to the corner and executed a slick backline move, Jalibert providing the final assist for Damian Penaud to score to regain his side the lead in the 32nd minute.

Jalibert improved from wide out and the young Bordeaux No10 then showed more of his individual brilliance to stylishly glide past an advancing Slade when returning a kick and slip out a wonderful flick pass.

Thomas was similarly audacious when embarrassing Watson on the outside in the tightest of spaces from inside his own half, Les Bleus clearly rising in confidence as the half ended.

England, once more, were grateful to Curry for shutting down that counter with another timely turnover on their own line.

The Red Rose’s discipline had been much improved compared to the debacle in Cardiff when Itoje conceded four penalties alone.

However, they infringed in the 50th minute for Jalibert to extend the lead to 20-13 although that was soon cancelled out by Farrell’s third effort.

Still, England struggled to gain any fluency in the second period, in part down to France’s excellent defence but also some poor decision-making, such as Youngs breaking blind from a scrum with no support and then kicking directly into touch to ruin any chance of applying pressure.

One excellent Jonny May kick gave them hope but they let France off too easily and it became a common theme in the final quarter, their old discipline issues creeping in once more as Jones’ side became increasingly desperate to try and regain some control.

In truth, despite trailing by just four points, they rarely got close, aside from one pscything Daly break after he replaced Malins.

France, showing their new-found maturity, did the simple things well, played pragmatically and gave their hosts little opportunity to strike.

However, England did get one last shot. And Itoje delivered.

England: Malins (Daly 63); Watson, Slade (Lawrence 72), Farrell, May; Ford, Youngs (Robson 75); M Vunipola (Genge 63), Cowan-Dickie (George 72), Sinckler (Stuart 72), Itoje, Ewels (Hill 79), Wilson (Earl 63),, Curry, B Vunipola.

France: Dulin; Thomas, Vakatawa, Fickou, Penaud; Jalibert, Dupont; Baille (Gros 68), Marchand, Haouas (Aldegheri 59), Taofifenua (Cazeaux 59) , Willemse, Cretin (Woki 72), Ollivon, Alldritt.

Referee: Andrew Brace (IRFU)