Youthful France push England all the way

England needed a penalty in the second half of extra-time to claim a 22-19 win over an inexperienced France side in the Nations Cup final on Sunday.

A dramatic final saw a young French team, who were without 25 of their regulars due to a pre-tournament agreement with the Top 14 clubs, put in a magnificent defensive performance to go toe-to-toe with last year’s World Cup runners-up.

Les Bleus picked a starting XV numbering only 68 caps against the most experienced England team of all time, containing a total of 813 caps. Almost half of France’s total was supplied by veteran fullback Brice Dulin, who has made 30 Test appearances.

Despite this, France had outplayed an England side that attacked without much purpose or direction, with Fabien Galthie’s side leading by seven points in the final 10 minutes.

However, England won a penalty with a minute to go and flyhalf George Ford put the ball right into the corner to give his side a lineout five metres from France’s tryline. From there, England mauled the ball forward, with replacement hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie breaking off and busting his way over the tryline.

Owen Farrell, who had missed a couple of kickable penalties, stepped up and slotted the conversions to level the scores at 19-19 and take the game to sudden death, where any score would have been the winner.

The first half of extra-time took a pattern that was very similar to the second half of regular time, with both teams playing low-risk rugby and looking to avoid giving away a kickable penalty. France had an opportunity to go for a drop-goal but gave away a breakdown penalty to release the pressure with the first period of sudden ending as it began.

France started the second period of extra-time brightly but were unlucky as referee Andrew Brace incorrectly awarded England a scrum inside their own 22, just after it appeared the French wing Gabin Villiere had won a breakdown penalty near England’s tryline.

A powerful scrumming effort saw England win a penalty and escape from danger. After a period of sustained pressure, England were able to kick the ball into France’s 22-metre area and win a breakdown penalty of their own, with Farrell stepping up to slot the winner.

In other results in the Nations Cup on Saturday, Fiji marked their return to Test rugby with a six-try 38-24 victory over Georgia. It was Fiji’s first match in the tournament after games with France, Italy against Scotland was cancelled because of a Covid-19 outbreak in the squad. Wing Nemani Nadolo, playing in his first Test match since 2018, scored a hat-trick of tries.

Meanwhile, Ireland scored three tries to see off a determined display from a South African-boosted Scotland team with a 31-16 win. Duhan van der Merwe scored Scotland’s only try, while debutant flyhalf Jaco van der Walt kicked one conversion and three penalties. Wales were able to finish fifth in the tournament after beating Italy 38-18 in Llanelli.

Photo: ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP via Getty Images

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Dylan Jack