There have been some thumping French grand slam victories but never one that has rippled so ominously around the world. Not for a dozen years have France claimed a Six Nations clean sweep but in many ways the dazzling beauty of this one lies in what might still lie ahead. On this evidence anyone else planning to win next year’s Rugby World Cup is going to be disappointed.
England’s players deserve considerable credit simply for hanging in the fight but once Antoine Dupont had surged irresistibly clear at the start of the final quarter to put his side clear at 25-13 it was in effect all over. Not a solitary English supporter in the bouncing stadium or sitting back at home could say the outcome of this compelling finale was anything other than totally deserved.
The final table rarely lies, either, and the best team in the tournament duly finished well ahead of the pack. England were a touch fortunate that Scotland and Wales both lost on the final day, thus sparing them the indignity of a second successive bottom-half finish, but there could be no hiding from the frequently uneven battle at the breakdown, the power of the French forwards or the rock-solid composure of the home side’s outstanding defence.
With Melvyn Jaminet to slot the goals and the understated Gaël Fickou arguably the player of the championship, it was also lucky for Eddie Jones’s outclassed side that a few early nerves affected their hosts’ handling. But if the stadium was rocking to its foundations, just imagine the atmosphere when the Rugby World Cup kicks off next year. Were the tournament commencing this week, Les Bleus would be favourites and they still look to have plenty of growth in them.
‘Super Saturday’ certainly lived up to its billing, even if the most stunning performance of the day had already been delivered by Italy in Cardiff. As a beautiful sunny day gave way to a cool, still evening, there were so many tricolores around the stadium it felt more like a slickly orchestrated political rally than a game of rugby.
Highlights of past French triumphs on the big screen, a stunning lightshow, fireworks, epic music‚ you half expected Fabien Galthié to be fired out of the tunnel from a cannon.
As Jones had acknowledged in the build up, though, this was also an acid test for England. Operation Grand Chelem screamed the headline on the front cover of L’Equipe and the mission statement needed no translating.
England, in the final analysis, offered stout defiance and an occasionally productive kick-chasing game but could not remotely match the all-court game of their opponents. Passion, pride and perseverance are all important qualities but, as Italy triumphantly demonstrated in Wales, there is also a fourth ‘p’ in the mix. The positivity that oozes from the Azzurri’s young full-back Ange Capuozzo will be just as much of a crucial World Cup prerequisite on firm pitches at a French World Cup as set-piece solidity.
That said, France’s defensive barricade is now a major stumbling block for all and sundry. Quite content to allow Ellis Genge to charge at them from deep, the home side absorbed a short spell of early pressure with total composure and only a few fumbled balls saved England from shipping a couple of early tries.
By the 15th minute, though, the dam had already burst, with Fickou gathering Romain Ntamack’s long pass to reward an ominous spell of all-court pressure.
Jaminet had already knocked over a scrum penalty and England were suitably grateful for three relieving points of their own from Marcus Smith. They were also fortunate not to be reduced to 14 men after Jack Nowell took out a soaring Jaminet in the air, with the referee, Jaco Peyper, awarding a penalty the other way for obstruction.
With England getting regularly picked off at the breakdown, however, it did not remotely knock France out of their stride.
A second Jaminet penalty and Nowell’s premature departure with a hand injury further tilted the scales and, after yet another butchered opportunity, Gabin Villière and Anthony Jelonch combined to set up flanker François Cros for a stretching score just before the break to make it 18-6.
At least England can say that courage in adversity is not an area of concern. Over the course of the championship, few have enhanced their top-level reputation more than Maro Itoje, with Genge not far behind. Smith now also has a full championship season behind him and will ultimately be the better for it.
There was a flicker of try-scoring promise, too, Freddie Steward muscling his way over in the right corner after 47 minutes for only the third try his team have scored in four games away from Rome.
Steward and Joe Marchant both had good games but maybe there is a simpler bottom line: France are currently just better than England, full stop.
Admittedly Luke Cowan-Dickie’s yellow card against Scotland, when his side were ahead, and Charlie Ewels’ second-minute red against Ireland both proved extremely costly but third position is a fair reflection of England’s middling season. Only one of these two sides presently looks like winning next year’s World Cup and it is not the battered and bruised men in white.