TWICKENHAM — Eddie Jones calls his replacements “finishers” and with good reason.
It was their impact which swung this Six Nations game back in England’s favour as they continued their unbeaten run with a victory over France. But for 70 minutes of this match Les Bleus caused them all sorts of problems.
Ben Te’o’s direct running, the work of Jamie George in the loose and the leadership of James Haskell – all three were second-half replacements — ensured they chalked up win number 15 on the bounce but England looked vulnerable at stages and clearly missed a clutch of injured players.
The outstanding player was a Northampton Saint, but Louis Picamoles was wearing the blue of France. The usually sturdy, impenetrable fortress of Twickenham was shaken by his barnstorming runs into the heart of England’s defence and they found it fiercely difficult to cope with his physicality and leg drive. He had HQ on a piece of string — arise King Louis.
Jones was preparing his team “for war” in the build-up to England’s Six Nations opener, but for the first half of the game, they failed to show up for the battle. The fireworks that greeted the sides at the start then metamorphosed into Picamoles’ and Scott Spedding’s bulldozing runs. They were ripping holes in England’s defence while Jones’ side looked uncharacteristically passive.
Les Bleus’ plan to target the George Ford-Owen Farrell axis worked and for the first half of the match, they struggled to find the tempo and rhythm which has underpinned so much of what England have done well. Passes failed to stick, the first lineout was a bizarre, disorganised mess and had France had a dab more ruthlessness in the 22, they could have put this game out of sight.
But then came the replacements and the self-belief Jones has instilled in this team. Though France were the better side for much of the game, you always sensed England had enough about them to scrape across the line. Their fitness was key in this — as was the case in the Australia series last summer, they secured the victories in the final throes of the match.
England missed their sidelined contingent. They lacked the brilliance of the Vunipola brothers, the organisational skills and set piece glue of George Kruis and the work-rate and leadership of Chris Robshaw. Jones will never use that as an excuse but even though he is reluctant to put the Vunipola brothers — Billy and Mako — into the “world-class” category, their absence showed just how important they are to the team Jones is building.
James Haskell shows his relief after playing a key role in England’s late comeback victory over France at Twickenham. Dan Mullan/Getty Images
There were many frustrations with this performance but Farrell was once again superb at inside centre – his second-half tackle on Picamoles was one of the only times England managed to halt the No.8 before he got into a stride – and his leadership was key to England getting a foothold in the match late on. His game management was superb and he was one of the galvanising figures in this England victory. Mike Brown, England’s other vice-captain, was effective from deep.
But it was the bench that swung it in their favour. Jamie George is more effective in open field than captain Dylan Hartley while Haskell’s arrival in the 64th minute seemed to galvanise England. Te’o’s brilliant line for the match-winning try showed why they missed the direct running of Billy Vunipola while his tackle late on to halt a France counter attack was superb.
France will consider this an opportunity missed. They could and perhaps should have won this match. While England’s replacements proved crucial, the decision by France coach Guy Noves to haul outstanding scrum-half Baptiste Serin off after 57 minutes was curious at best.
England know they have to improve if they are to repeat last year’s Grand Slam heroics. Wales won’t be so forgiving in punishing any slack play when they meet next Saturday. But Jones will look at this in relative, black and white terms. England won at less than their best, and it was the inner belief within his side that will perhaps please their coach most. The teams of previous chapters would have lost this.
It was win No. 14 of the Jones era and a record 15th in a row, but this was one almighty fright.
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Impact subs help England find a way to win 15
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