PARIS (AFP) – Captain Charles Ollivon scored two tries as France kicked off a new era under recently-appointed coach Fabien Galthie with a thrilling 24-17 victory over England in their opening 2020 Six Nations match last Sunday.
Galthie took over full-time in the wake of France’s quarter-final exit at last season’s World Cup in Japan and looks to have thoroughly revived the France XV, featuring just one player over the age of 30.
Two first-half tries by Vincent Rattez and Ollivon, along with two conversions and a penalty from Romain Ntamack handed the home side, powered magnificently around the pitch by scrum-half Antoine Dupont, a 17-0 half-time lead.
A second converted Ollivon try extended France’s lead but World Cup runners-up England hit back with a Jonny May brace of tries both converted by Owen Farrell.
“It’s a victory for all the little details put in place and worked on by the coaching staff over the last couple of months,” said Galthie. “We were not afraid of making mistakes but were utterly convinced we could win.”
Farrell acknowledged that France had been the “more aggressive from the word go”, also dismissing “mental fatigue” as a factor behind the defeat.
“They scored tries off a couple of our mistakes, we had the ball in our own half too much, we made too many mistakes and they capitalised,” Farrell told the BBC.
“They got a foothold, we kind of paused, we had a bit more in the second half but that’s not the way we want to defend.”
There was a buzz around Stade de France not felt for some time and the expectant crowd were soon rewarded after a ferocious start as the two sides piled into each other.
Livewire winger Teddy Thomas darted in-field, only to be brought down by George Furbank, making his England debut at full-back.
The ball was quickly recycled and an inside Ntamack pass found Rattez, the late replacement for the injured Damian Penaud easily riding Ben Youngs’ tackle to score a fine team try.
Ntamack converted, hit a 16th minute penalty and then another conversion as new skipper Ollivon showed a clean pair of heels to make the line for France’s second try after Courtney Lawes failed to gather a Dupont box kick, Rattez playing provider on the tapdown.
England were guilty of a raft of basic handling errors, losing possession four times alone when threatening in the French 22m area.
Farrell spilled the ball in midfield and George Ford’s kicking was consistently too long, allowing an easy bedding-in for France’s debutant full-back Anthony Bouthier, who produced one stunning 90-metre kick out of hand.
France’s hard-hitting South African-born lock pairing of Paul Willemse and Bernard Le Roux, and centre Gael Fickou were at the heart of a smothering French defence, now masterminded by Shaun Edwards, the rugby league legend who was right-hand man to Warren Gatland during his successful 12-year tenure of Wales.
Almost a year to the day that France squandered a 16-0 half-time lead over Wales in their 2019 Six Nations opener (eventually losing 24-19), there were nerves about how Les Bleus would weather a loaded English riposte in the second period.
England won two penalties deep in French territory, twice opting for a scrum. That backfired as Maro Itoje knocked on, the crowd breaking into a booming rendition of La Marseillaise as the French rumbled out of their own half.
Ollivon crossed for his second try, and France’s third, in the 55th minute, showing an openside’s fine reading of the game to track Dupont’s sharp break and taking an inside pass to glide over.
Ntamack made no mistake with the extras, but England hit back straight away, winger May chasing down his own chip for a try, Farrell converting.
Drama was guaranteed to the end as May scored a second try, this time a brilliant individual effort that saw him skip past Rattez, cut back in past Ntamack and around Thomas to the line.
Farrell converted and with the English set-piece suddenly in the ascendancy, there was all to play for at 24-14.
But the French held firm for a fine win, Farrell hitting an injury-time penalty for a losing bonus point, and can now look forward to next week hosting Italy, beaten 42-0 by defending champions Wales last Saturday.
England, however, will have little time to lick their wounds, with a tight six-day turnaround before going to Edinburgh to take on Scotland, defeated 19-12 by Ireland in their opener.