France 22 England 24
England secured a remarkable RBS 6 Nations victory over France in Paris that could have profound implications on the future direction of the national team.
Tries from Manu Tuilagi and Ben Foden put England 14-3 ahead and when Tom Croft scored late on they led 24-15 with just five minutes remaining.
Wesley Fofana’s converted try in the corner brought France storming back into the game but Francois Trinh-Duc’s late drop-goal attempt fell short.
England, mathematically at least, will head into the final weekend with a shot at the title and Stuart Lancaster’s bid to become the next full-time coach is building momentum.
Never before have England won all three away fixtures in the same championship season and today’s triumph lifts Lancaster’s men up to fourth in the world.
If they can stay there for the rest of the year – admittedly a tough ask given the fixtures that lie ahead – England will be a top seed at their home World Cup in 2015.
The expectation is that the Rugby Football Union want a coach with top-level international experience to lead England into the tournament but Jake White’s withdrawal appears to leave them with a choice between Lancaster and Nick Mallett.
Lancaster said in the week that he has enough vision and self-belief to bridge the experience gap and become Martin Johnson’s permanent successor.
Nothing will have hammered his message home more profoundly to RFU chief executive Ian Ritchie than this away win in Paris.
Wales’ superior points difference means they have a strong grip on the championship crown but if France were to wreck their Grand Slam party next weekend then England, mathematically at least, will be going for the title against Ireland.
Gloucester wing Charlie Sharples was awarded his first Test start after David Strettle was ruled out on the eve of the match with a chest injury, while France coach Philippe Saint-Andre gave fly-half Lionel Beauxis and scrum-half Julien Dupuy their first Test starts since 2009.
Beauxis sliced a drop-goal attempt wide after some strong approach play from his forwards and Dupuy missed a penalty before flanker Julien Bonnaire brushed aside tackles from Dan Cole and Sharples before being dragged down just short.
Despite those French opportunities, England were the better side for the opening half-hour and scored two scintillating tries to take control of the match.
Chris Ashton produced a shuddering tackle on hooker Dimitri Szarzewski and Owen Farrell scooped up the loose ball and Lee Dickson sent Tuilagi thundering away to beat Aurelien Rougerie and score in the corner.
After Farrell converted, Beauxis landed a long-range penalty to get France on the board but England hit them again with a second try.
Number eight Ben Morgan beat two defenders on a rampaging run before fending off Imanol Harinordoquy and slipping a deft offload to Ben Foden, who dragged Vincent Clerc with him over the line.
Farrell’s conversion was successful but the Saracens fly-half then hit the post from bang in front, failing to reward a strong effort from an England pack.
Beauxis appeared to have wasted an attacking opportunity when he lumped another high ball towards Foden, who claimed the mark just before being taken out by Rougerie.
Croft and Ashton took exception to the tackle, prompting a shoving match with Rougerie which saw France awarded a penalty, which Dupuy kicked.
It was careless from England, who then conceded two more before the interval as their lead was cut to 14-9.
Farrell extended England’s advantage after Fofana was penalised for a deliberate knock-on, defying the jeers to land a nerveless kick from 40 metres out.
France began to ring the changes with hooker William Servat and prop Vincent Debaty sent on as well as Morgan Parra at scrum half.
England conceded another penalty for pulling down a maul, which Beauxis missed, before Sharples was sent to the sin-bin for a deliberate knock-on.
Clement Poitrenaud sent Fofana crashing into the England 22 where he was half-stopped by Foden’s tackle before Cole joined in and forced the French centre to knock on.
Although England saw out the sin-bin without further damage, France continued to chip away at their lead with two more penalties from Beauxis.
Suddenly the lead was down to two points. England had to respond and they did through Croft, who cut between Rougerie and Harinordoquy before rounding Poitrenaud to score.
But there was still time for late drama. From a strong five-metre scrum, Fofana attacked the blindside and beat Sharples to score in the same corner as Tuilagi.
With five minutes left the match was again in the balance but England clung on as Trinh-Duc’s drop goal attempt lacked the legs to reach its target.