It was supposed to be a cakewalk. It was supposed to be business as usual for Eddie Jones’ team in front of 2,000 spectators at Twickenham.
Many, Jones included, labeled this game a “farce” because France’s top 25 players were forced to sit due to an agreement between the French Rugby Federation and the Top14 owners which prevents any French player from competing in more than three test matches in the Autumn International Window.
Well, expectations be darned. France threw out the projections, the assumptions, and the word of rugby “experts”, reminding us again why games are won and lost on the field, not on paper.
England may have won on the day, and taken home the trophy, but only after mounting a furious comeback in the dying moments to do so. France can hold its head high and look to the future with plenty of optimism after taking the world’s #2 team to the brink with second and third stringers in the line-up.
Jalibert Disrupts Cagey Start
After 14 minutes, England led 3-0 as both teams found forward momentum difficult and opted for positional kicking play. Eventually, however, France found the first spark in the game through youngster Matthew Jalibert.
In the 15th minute, the fly-half spotted the smallest of gaps between center Owen Farrell and hooker Jamie George to break into the clear before delivering a perfectly weighted pass for fullback Brice Dulin to take across the whitewash for the game’s opening try. Jalibert added the conversion for good measure and confidence poured into the French team.
France Holding On
France held firm on numerous England scoring chances, none more so than just before half. With the clock nearing the red, England found itself camped on the French goal line, down 13-6. The English threw wave after wave of pick & go’s at the French defense, but after 13 phases, Ellis Genge ultimately knocked the ball on and France went into the sheds up by seven points and brimming with confidence and belief.
Could they really pull this off?
As the game continued to move into the later stages, England found it difficult to close the gap on the scoreboard, despite dominating in possession and territory. Some sublime goal-kicking and heroic defense by France saw the two sides head into the final five minutes of the contest with France leading 19-12.
Trailing 19-12 with two minutes to go, England received the ball from an Alvareti Raka kick inside their own half, needing a miracle. After a couple of phases, Maro Itoje popped the ball to a charging Billy Vunipola, who made a solid carry over the advantage line before being tackled.
As he went to place the ball on the ground, it looked like Vunipola lost control of the ball forward, which would have given France the ball back with under two minutes to go. The ref, however, deemed that the England No. 8 never lost possession of the ball and called for play on.
Moments later, a similar incident occurred, this time Owen Farrell the man on the carry. Having just carried the ball into French territory, Farrell too hit the deck and appeared to lose control of the ball on the ground before reaching an arm out forward to reel it back in. What looked to be both a knock on and playing on the ground by Farrell was judged by the referee to be French hands in the ruck and England were the ones awarded the penalty.
Cool as a cucumber, George Ford plugged the ball into touch five meters from the line from a tight angle and England had a lineout in a very threatening position. Equally calm under pressure, Exeter’s Luke Cowan-Dickie connected with fellow Chiefs man Jonny Hill in the lineout, and England got the rolling maul operating.
After some 15 meters of diagonal driving towards the goal posts, Cowan-Dickie peeled off the back of the maul to crash over and give Farrell an easy conversion to tie up the game with the 80 minutes up.
Rarely do rugby fans get to experience extra time, particularly at the test match level. Sunday’s championship game provided just that, and the rare circumstance didn’t disappoint.
Just one minute into the sudden-death overtime, France committed another penalty 36 meters out and right in the middle of the park. Farrell, who at this stage was just 4/7 from the tee, had a chance to redeem himself with one big kick to win the whole tournament.
Shockingly, Farrell’s kick clanged off the inside of the right upright and France were still alive. Right from the 22 meter drop out, Billy Vunipola inexplicably dropped the deep kick and five minutes into the extra period it was now France looking the more likely to score. After some good phase play moved France closer and closer to the England 22, another big call came from the ref, as the French were pinged for going off their feet in the clearout, letting England out of jail.
The teams went back and forth up the field, until the first of two extra periods came to an end with the teams still deadlocked at 19-19.
The second period of OT was as tense as the first, as both sides clung to dear life in defense and worked hard to uphold their discipline. Eventually, Elliot Daly’s probing kick deep into France territory led to a tackle on an isolated Raka and a subsequent penalty won by Maro Itoje. This set up one more attempt from the tee for Owen Farrell, and this time the English captain was successful to give England the 2020 ANC trophy.
Shaun Edwards’ Genius on Display
If you look back at some of the most successful, overperforming teams of the past 20 years in European rugby, you’ll notice certain names popping up repeatedly. Amongst that group if defensive coach Shaun Edwards, who was a key part of the Wasps coaching setup in the 00’s, then for Wales from 2008-2019.
His latest venture has taken him east into France, where yet again he has been right at the heart of a major rugby resurgence. While the French are loaded with talent all over the country, the chief difference between this team and the one of the past decade is a major commitment on the defensive end.
Sunday’s matchup with England showcased once again how tough a Shaun Edwards defense is to crack, no matter who is playing in it. England were stymied time and time again, looking lost on ideas and forcing the issues when plans A, B, and C weren’t working. For England to put points on the board on Sunday, crossing the try-line was always going to be a tough ask.
Farrell’s Kicking Woes
Seldom do you see Owen Farrell implode off the tee, but implode he did in the Autumn Nations Cup Final against France. The usually automatic Farrell botched four kicks from inside the 15-meter channels on Sunday, only further fueling French confidence by keeping them in the game.
With their leader struggling off the tee, England started making mistakes and throwing good opportunities away in an attempt to chase the game. Something as simple as kicking for posts can have an unforeseeable influence on the psyche of the team, and we saw that take place this weekend.
Both teams can walk away from the Autumn Nations Cup feeling pretty good about where they’re at moving into 2021. England played well in victories over Ireland and Wales, and did enough to win the title game, so despite the underwhelming performance on Sunday it was still a strong 2020 for Eddie Jones and England, who also walk away with the Six Nations trophy.
France will move on from the Autumn Nations Cup now knowing they might be the deepest team in the world. Given the strength of players 26-49 on the French pecking order, there are plenty of positive signs ahead of the 2023 World Cup, which will be played in France.
Look out World Rugby: France is back.