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Premiership Rugby

France tough it out and claim English scalp

A Gallagher Premiership Rugby ball

Not since March 2002 – against France in Paris – had England been beaten, and now any thoughts of breaking the world record run of consecutive Test wins can go out of the window – although a combative French side were good value for their win after applying sufficient elbow grease in key areas.

Even the hot-and-cold kicking and decision-making of their fly-half Frédéric Michalak could not throw them off the scent, with the Toulouse star adding three penalties and a drop-goal to fullback Nicolas Brusque's first-half try.

Two late drop-goal attempts from England fly-half Paul Grayson were in vain, as they battled well against a hungry French pack, but were visibly missing star names such as Martin Johnson, Jonny Wilkinson and Jason Robinson – with only three or four of their starters from this match likely to figure in the first-choice World Cup side.

And the teams meet again at Twickenham on Saturday, a match in which England coach Clive Woodward has signalled his intent to field some of his frontline players to get them in the World Cup swing.

There were a number of solid performances by the men in white, not least from try-scorer Mike Tindall, although the centre limped off the field midway through the second half in what may well be a worry for the management.

Fit-again Austin Healey started at scrum-half and was one of the oustanding England performers, showing nerve and direction, while flankers Martin Corry and Lewis Moody also gave good physical accounts of themselves in the open field, covering yard after yard.

For France, in what was pretty much their main starting XV, virtually all of the tight five can pat themselves on the back for their superb scrummaging, while second rower Fabien Pelous excelled throughout.

The relaxed play of fly-half Michalak will no doubt have nerves jangling however, and his often wasteful use of posession will have frustrated captain Fabien Galthié, who was his usual bustling self.

With both sides bedecked in their bizarre new skin-tight kits, the sets of players looked more like cyclists, sprinters or rave dancers than rugby players, and with a whole host having to go off for running repairs on their figure-hugging attire, it seems work still needs to be done by the manufacturers.

It was France who had the early lead with a Michalak penalty after only two minutes, but Grayson levelled the scores six minutes later with one of his own.

The 60,000 capacity crowd were on their feet when Christophe Dominici broke through a tackle and hared away down the left-wing towards the tryline, although play was brought back for a previous infringement.

But despite most of the play being in the tight exchanges, it was a back who scored the opening try, with the shaven-headed Tindall powering his way over after a long line-out down the left-wing, taking the ball at second receiver before bashing his way through a double tackle on the 22, having a clear run to the line thereafter.

Grayson converted, and got France on the back foot with some well-taken punts, although when he chipped the French defence in the corner for Iain Balshaw to touch down a try – the Bath speedster was judged to have been in front of the kicker, and the score was chalked off.

But France were pressuring upfront, especially in the scrums, their dominance however failing to be rewarded by the inconsistent boot of Michalak, who missed two penalties and a conversion before the half was out.

He did however strike a cool drop-goal to bring the deficit back to four points, and Les Bleus took the lead not long after when fullback Brusque crashed over in the left corner for a try – a handy midfield scrum seeing the ball worked wide before cutting it back inside and flat-footing the English defence.

It looked they would be back behind soon after as England No.8 Alex Sanderson charged down a Michalak clearance, only to bounce the ball in his attempt to ground it – the video referee being called upon to make the tough decision.

A penalty apiece for Grayson and Michalak in first-half injury-time took the score to 14-13 in favour of the hosts at the interval – referee Lawrence playing a whole eight minutes of extra-time before blowing the whistle.

As the second half started, Grayson got an apt reminder of the presence of the French pack when Pelous clattered him with a beauty of a tackle.

With France having more than their fair share of the ball, a deft cross-field kick caught the England defence unawares, with Brusque chasing the kick into the left corner only for the video referee – after a lengthy ponder – to rule that he had a hand on the whitewash of the dead ball area when he touched the ball down. It was a lucky escape for England, who were caught napping.

Michalak fired wide with a drop-goal attempt not long after, and with England captain Dorian West leaving the field for Steve Thompson, the mantle of captaincy passed to Grayson, who struggled at times with punting off his left foot, and never looked to have anything near the same sort of running threat of first-choice Jonny Wilkinson, despite having a generally solid game.

And it was Grayson who nudged England into the lead on the 60-minute mark with a penalty from right of the posts, but Michalak put Les Bleus back on track with a quick reply, his penalty bouncing in off the top of the upright to claim what would actually be the last points of the match, with 20 minutes still left.

The latter stages saw French territorial domination, with midfield big-hitter Brian Liebenberg coming on to good effect, although his prime use seemed to be as a battering ram and a clearance man at the ruck.

He did however potentially save France the match as a frantic England mounted an injury-time onslaught, charging down a Grayson drop-goal attempt, with the fly-half then going on to fire another attempt wide of the posts moments later.

That miss brought about the full-time whistle, as France made it four wins from four matches at the Stade Velodrome – with the notable scalps of New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and now England to have fallen in what is rapidly becoming a rugby graveyard for the world's top sides.

Ahead of next week's rematch at Twickenham however, there may be enough chinks in the armour to suggest that a more familiar-looking England team can turn this result around.

Man of the match: With the domination exerted by the French pack, our award really has to go to one of their front five, and for his all-round play, lock Fabien Pelous is the recipient, although tighthead prop Sylvain Marconnet could also have a near equal claim, while wing Christophe Dominici looked good on the odd occasion he got the ball. For England, Austin Healey was outstanding at scrum-half, exercising good decision-making and proving his World Cup fitness, while openside Lewis Moody and centre Mike Tindall were among those to shine.

Moment of the match: In an interesting game short on raw electrifying incidents, the well-crafted first-half try of French fullback Nicolas Brusque gets our vote, with the ball being shifted left through the hands before finding its way to Brusque on a straightening line – the Biarritz player racing for the left corner and slamming the ball down under the challenge of the frantic English tacklers.

Villain of the match: While it is sorely tempting to cite the cringingly tight shirts worn by both teams for our award due to crimes against fashion and male dignity, our decision goes to the member of the England support team who ran up the touchline and interfered with the (missed) conversion attempt of Frédéric Michalak after Brusque's try. Michalak, to his credit, did not let the incident faze him, and while it may well have been an accidental transgression, it still could have easily soured the game.

The scorers:

For France:Try: BrusquePens: Michalak 3DG: Michalak

For England:Try: TindallCon: GraysonPens: Grayson 2

The teams:

France: 15 Nicolas Brusque, 14 Aurélien Rougerie, 13 Yannick Jauzion, 12 Damien Traille, 11 Christophe Dominici, 10 Frédéric Michalak, 9 Fabien Galthié (captain), 8 Imanol Harinordoquy, 7 Olivier Magne, 6 Serge Betsen, 5 Jerome Thion, 4 Fabien Pelous, 3 Sylvain Marconnet, 2 Yannick Bru, 1 Jean-Jacques Crenca.Replacements: 16 Raphael Ibanez, 17 Olivier Milloud, 18 David Auradou, 19 Sebastian Chabal, 20 Patrick Tabacco, 21 Xavier Garbajosa, 22 Brian Liebenberg.

England: 15 Iain Balshaw, 14 Josh Lewsey, 13 Ollie Smith, 12 Mike Tindall, 11 Ben Cohen, 10 Paul Grayson (vice-captain), 9 Austin Healey, 8 Alex Sanderson, 7 Lewis Moody, 6 Martin Corry, 5 Danny Grewcock, 4 Steve Borthwick, 3 Julian White, 2 Dorian West (captain), 1 Graham Rowntree.Replacements: 16 Steve Thompson, 17 Jason Leonard, 18 Simon Shaw, 19 Andy Hazell, 20 Andy Gomarsall, 21 Dave Walder, 22 Jamie Noon.

Date: Saturday, August 30Venue: Stade Velodrome, MarseilleConditions: Mild, 23°C Referee: Mark Lawrence (South Africa)Touch judges: Dave McHugh, Simon McDowell (both Ireland)Television Match Official: Hugh Watkins (Wales)

By Mark Smith

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