France’s young stars ensured the Fabien Galthié era started with a party in Paris as they stunned England in their opening game of the 2020 Guinness Six Nations.
The Euro pop that graced the Stade de France before the first whistle set the tone for the game as an exuberant Les Bleus side showed no fear against their more experienced visitors.
With Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack orchestrating the attack, France stormed into a 17-0 half-time lead with tries from Vincent Rattez and new captain Charles Ollivon.
Ollivon scored his second after the break before England rallied with a brilliant Jonny May double to give the World Cup runners-up hope of a miraculous late comeback.
But May’s solo show was not enough to prevent France from winning their opening Championship game for the first time since beating Italy in 2016.
DUPONT DELIVERS MASTERCLASS
England achieved their biggest margin of victory over France in Championship history when the two sides met 12 months ago at Twickenham, running in three tries in the opening 30 minutes.
But the tables were well and truly turned in Paris as Les Bleus raced out of the blocks to surge into a 17-0 lead with a little over 20 minutes played after carving open the visitors twice.
Eddie Jones’ men initially made the brighter start as Ben Youngs tested debutant France full-back Anthony Bouthier under the high ball – an examination he passed with flying colours.
Hooker Julien Marchand was less assured with his first lineout, throwing it long into the grateful mitts of Sam Underhill as the Bath flanker carried England deep into the hosts’ 22.
But the move broke down when Tom Curry lost the ball in a huge collision and England soon had their backs against the wall after an electric Teddy Thomas break opened them up.
With the roars of the home crowd echoing urging them on, the ball was recycled through multiple short phases before Rattez ran a lovely line off Ntamack’s shoulder to race through for the opening try.
Ntamack stepped up to add the extras and after more uncharacteristic errors from the England pack, France started to show glimpses of the attacking flair at their disposal.
Rattez found space to enter England’s 22 and with Dupont pulling the strings, the Red Rose presented France with another three points for coming in at the side of the ruck.
There was no mistake from Ntamack from the resulting penalty and things went from bad to worse for England when Manu Tuilagi was forced off with only 17 minutes on the clock.
Jonathan Joseph took his place in midfield and it was not long before his defensive attributes were called upon as Galthié’s side continued to pile the pressure on the visitors.
A second try appeared inevitable and it arrived midway through the first half when Rattez worked the ball out left to France skipper Ollivon, who was able to run home unopposed.
A TMO review for a potential knock-on in the build up proved inconclusive and to the delight of the locals the try was awarded, with Ntamack slotting the extras once again.
Everything was going France’s way and even when England began to mount their response, the visitors found themselves coming up against an inspired Les Bleus defence.
Former Wales defence maestro Shaun Edwards certainly appears to have made an impact since joining the new France coaching set-up as England’s attacks failed to penetrate the blue wall.
May came closest to finding a way through, running an inside line to get into the France 22 but England were soon forced back and a mistake allowed the hosts to bring the half to a close.
MAY LEADS RED ROSE RESPONSE
England remained on the pitch for a huddle once the half-time whistle blew and as expected a response came after the restart – but not before France extended their lead.
The Edwards effect paid dividends again at the start of the second half as Les Bleus repelled wave after wave of England attack, even escaping without conceding three points.
Another Red Rose attack was almost finished by Joseph, only for the centre to be stripped of the ball by the imposing Virimi Vakatawa just as he dived for the line.
And having seen off England’s early pressure, France delivered a counterpunch that appeared to put the result beyond doubt as they added a third try on 55 minutes.
Dupont was again the architect, sniping blind with a series of side-steps before feeding the ball back inside to Ollivon as the France skipper raced over for his second of the contest.
Ntamack added the extras and England found themselves staring at a scoreboard that read 24-0 and the prospect of leaving Paris empty handed.
But May had other ideas. The winger showed his footballing skills to create his first try out of nothing, kicking forward and grounding the ball under pressure from Teddy Thomas.
Farrell added the extras and he was soon adding another two points after May turned on the nitro boosters again, leaving Ntamack and Thomas in his wake to cross the whitewash for his second.
England had further chances to cut the deficit in the closing 15 minutes but France remained resilient and while Farrell added a late penalty to snatch a losing bonus point, nothing was to deny a famous Les Bleus win.
The spell either side of half-time ultimately proved key as England were repeatedly frustrated by a superbly drilled Les Blues defence – a testament to the impact of Edwards.
Having conceded 17 points without landing a blow in response, the Red Rose strived to end the first half with a try but repeatedly found the door slam shut in their face.
It was a similar story after the restart as they opted to take a scrum on successive penalties in front of the France posts, only to be denied a certain score when Joseph was stripped of the ball.
Buoyed by the fact they had denied England for a seventh time from within five metres of their won tryline, France then went down the other end as Ollivon put the game beyond the visitors.
PLAYER WATCH – Antoine Dupont
Trusted by Galthié to provide the link between attack and defence, 23-year-old Antoine Dupont did not just cope with the pressure place upon him – he positively thrived in it.
With Toulouse’s 20-year-old Romain Ntamack alongside him, Dupont was assured from start to finish on the ball and barely put a foot wrong as he controlled the France attack.
He played a key role in two of his side’s three tries and ensured England always remained at arm’s length, always making the right decision when he was given the ball.
But undoubtedly the highlight of the game came in the build up to France’s third try, which saw Dupont skip down the blindside with the grace of a ballet dancer before setting up Ollivon to score.
Tries: Rattez, Ollivon 2
Cons: Ntamack 3
Tries: May 2
Cons: Farrell 2
FRANCE: Anthony Bouthier; Teddy Thomas, Virimi Vakatawa, Gaël Fickou, Damian Penaud; Romain Ntamack, Antoine Dupont; Cyril Baille, Julien Marchand, Mohamed Haouas, Bernard Le Roux, Paul Willemse, Francois Cros, Charles Ollivon (captain), Gregory Alldritt. Replacements: Peato Mauvaka, Jefferson Poirot, Demba Bamba, Boris Palu, Cameron Woki, Baptiste Serin, Matthieu Jalibert, Vincent Rattez.
ENGLAND: George Furbank; Jonny May, Manu Tuilagi, Owen Farrell (captain), Elliot Daly; George Ford, Ben Youngs; Joe Marler, Jamie George, Kyle Sinckler, Maro Itoje, Charlie Ewels, Courtney Lawes, Sam Underhill, Tom Curry. Replacements: Luke Cowan-Dickie, Ellis Genge, Will Stuart, George Kruis, Lewis Ludlam, Willi Heinz, Ollie Devoto, Jonathan Joseph.
France v England
@ Stade de France
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales)
Assistant referees: Andrew Brace (Ireland), Brendon Pickerill (New Zealand)
TMO: Brian MacNeice (Ireland)