The French players showed they were much better than the 84-4 mauling a year ago, organisers pulled in a 14,000-crowd, Ryan Hall extended his try-scoring record, England’s players blew away the cobwebs and Wayne Bennett got the victory he craved in his first game in charge.
Of course, greater obstacles are on the horizon and England will need to improve if they are to challenge for the Four Nations trophy.
But with a game now under their belt and up to six players to return to the fold – including captain Sam Burgess – they look well-equipped to do so.
Saturday’s Test in Avignon had elements of a pre-season friendly, with England trying out new plays and structures and Bennett trying out players in different combinations.
At one point, both hookers were on the pitch at the same time, and players in positions who would usually go the full course of a match – such as at full-back (Jonny Lomax) and half-back (Luke Gale) – were replaced for spells, by Stefan Ratchford and Kevin Brown, respectively.
With so many changes, only one middle on the bench and drizzly conditions, there was mitigation for the low-key start to the second half.
But credit France. They at least had a dig, and restored some pride to their shirt after their humiliation a year ago.
Leeds winger Hall crossed twice in the first half to extend his record as England’s top tryscorer to 28, from as many appearances.
That double, sandwiching tries by Daryl Clark and Tom Burgess, helped England into a 22-6 lead at the interval.
England finished strongly with late tries by Kevin Brown, Jermaine McGillvary and Gareth Widdop, who kicked six goals from seven attempts to reach the 100-point milestone for England.
Burgess, who missed the game through suspension, and the five rested Grand Finalists, including four from champions Wigan, watched the game from the stands.
Those absences paved the way for five players to make their England debuts – St Helens duo Lomax and Mark Percival, Castleford’s Gale, Hull FC’s Scott Taylor and Wolves’ Ratchford.
France’s squad featured 13 Super League players, and new coach Aurelien Cologni had stoked the flames in the build-up, admitting he “doesn’t like” England and accusing Bennett of disrespecting the hosts by flying out on game-day.
Cologni’s instruction to play with more aggression surfaced early, with punches thrown in a third-minute scrap involving Warrington-bound Mike Cooper. Referee Phil Bentham did not brandish any cards but the incident will be looked at by the match review panel today.
England pressed early, and twice went close through Hall and Taylor.
France, though, held firm and on their first attack on the visitors’ line, Eloi Pelissier sent the crowd into raptures when they found a gap in the defence, which he darted through. Tony Gigot’s conversion made it 6-0.
England were favouring their right-side attack, and after Percival went close, they opened their account when a neat cut-out pass by Lomax sent Hall thundering over in the 26th minute.
Widdop converted to lock the scores, and moments later Daryl Clark punished an embarrassingly-soft defence by darting over from dummy-half.
Romain Navarrete must have delighted fans at new club Wigan with a crunching tackle on captain James Graham, which drove him back several strides.
But he conceded a penalty in their next defensive set and, from that position, England powered ahead when Tom Burgess swatted off Kevin Larroyer’s tackle to angle over.
Widdop’s third successive conversion made it 18-6 and, with five minutes to go to the break, England had enough time to nudge further ahead. With halves Gale and Widdop marshalling their flanks efficiently, the ball was shifted to their left where Hall again swept over. Widdop was this time off target.
A constant drizzle made conditions more difficult in the second half, and the spectacle fast fizzled out. England were solid in the middle, where the Burgess boys stood out, but they did not have the same purpose or attacking shape that served them so well before the interval. But Brown’s try, his first for his country, was followed by two more to add some gloss to the scoreline.
Huddersfield winger McGillvary squeezed over and Widdop crossed after chasing a midfield grubber. Captain James Graham did not finish the game after an injury in a nasty tackle, but Bennett expects him to be fit for their Four Nations opener.
France: Gigot; Pala, Garcia, Duport, Arnaud; Robin, Barthau; Navarrete, Da Costa, Casty, Simon, Jullien, Bousquet. Substitutes: Pelissier, Goudemand, Springer, Larroyer.
England: Lomax; McGillvary, Watkins, Percival, Hall; Widdop, Gale; Graham, Hodgson, Taylor, Whitehead, Cooper, T Burgess. Substitutes: G Burgess, Brown, Ratchford, Clark.
Referee: P Bentham.