England on course for Grand Slam

England 17 France 9

England 17 France 9

England took a giant step towards their first Grand Slam since 2003 with a gritty and determined victory over reigning champions France.

Ben Foden scored the only try of a ferocious encounter at Twickenham, with Toby Flood kicking nine points and Jonny Wilkinson coming off the bench to add a penalty.

Those three points re-established Wilkinson as the leading points scorer in the history of Test rugby - but that will not be the statistic he or England celebrate tonight.

It will be the sight of Martin Johnson's rejuvenated side top of the RBS 6 Nations table, unbeaten after three matches. The last time that happened was in 2003.

Scotland come to Twickenham in a fortnight's time before England head to Ireland on the final weekend. It was in Dublin that England sealed that Grand Slam in 2003.

Johnson was captain that year. Now he is manager. The parallels are clear.

As recently as November, England were found wanting in a physical battle against South Africa.

This clash was every bit as ferocious, with France boasting a powerful pack and renowned scrum, but England stood up to it, proving they have more than one arrow in their quiver.

The Italians were destroyed a fortnight ago as England ran in eight tries, with Chris Ashton the hero.

Today, France were ground down, with England's forwards their match-winners with man of the match Tom Palmer supported by lung-bursting contributions from Dylan Hartley and Louis Deacon.

England knew the importance of placing the unpredictable French under pressure from the outset and they did so, stealing the first lineout and then winning a penalty at the first scrum.

Flood rewarded his forwards by slotting the kick but France hit back immediately through Dimitri Yachvili after Shontayne Hape was isolated as England tried to run from deep.

France were penalised for illegal binding - another win for the red rose pack - and Flood's clearance awarded England a foothold deep into French territory.

Nick Easter charged forward from clean lineout ball, Yannick Jauzion crept off-side and Flood re-established England's lead.

England were targeting Sebastien Chabal and the former Sale number eight was rattled. His attempted flick off the floor put France in trouble and England secured the turnover.

Youngs had a four on three overlap outside but opted to kick ahead for Ashton to chase and Clement Poitrenaud was able to recover and clear his lines.

Flood spotted a half gap to disrupt the French defence and England worked the ball wide right to Hartley, who charged into space and released Louis Deacon.

France were able to recover - had it been Foden and Ashton out wide they may not have been so fortunate - but Chabal strayed offside and Flood slotted his third penalty.

France responded by building steady pressure. England rebuffed it well but Easter was caught trying to scoop the ball in the ruck and Yachvili struck the penalty.

The Biarritz scrum-half then levelled matters after France won a scrum against the head as Les Bleus began to get the edge up front, helped by the loss of Andrew Sheridan to a leg injury.

England began to get scrappy, with careless dropped balls and knock-ons, a sign not only of the difficult handling conditions but also the intensity of an enthralling battle.

France worked a smart lineout move to send hooker William Servat clear but England were let-off when referee George Clancy judged the ball had not travelled five metres.

Yachvili missed a chance to secure France the half-time lead - and then had a nightmare start to the second period when his first clearance was charged down by Palmer.

England swarmed. France were driven back in the scrum and Flood then switched play to the left. Ashton juggled his pass but Foden snapped it up and ran through three France defenders to score his third Test try.

England had their tails up. Youngs and Flood combined instinctively to free Ashton who raced under the posts - but referee Clancy punctured the celebrations when he brought play back for a forward pass.

It was breathless stuff. Yachvili's kick went straight out, Hartley made another strong carry before Tindall and Hape drove for the line but the ball was lost and France escaped.

Flood was forced off after 50 minutes with an ankle problem but on came Wilkinson, whose first act was to land a long-distance penalty to regain the world record.

More importantly, it put England 17-9 ahead. Two scores clear.

England gifted France an immediate chance to reply but Yachvili's penalty hit the post and stayed out.

After Trinh-Duc saw a drop-goal effort charged down, the French fly-half pushed a grubber kick in behind England's defence but Aurelien Rougerie knocked on as he tried to ground it.

It was an intense period of pressure from France but England survived.

They then had two golden chances to wrap up the victory.

The first they should have taken. Wilkinson sent Ashton careering through the French line on a wonderful angle. The Northampton wing tried to pass left to Cueto when he had Danny Care screaming for the ball, and a certain try, to his right.

England came again with Tindall charging onto a Wilkinson off-load. He went down but crept forward amid a forest of legs to touch down, however referee Clancy ruled he had been held.

In the end it mattered little. Victory was England's.

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