PARIS, France -- There will be no three-peat. Having commanded the Six Nations for the past two years, England are no longer championship-holders. Instead as they fell against a spirited, madly random but entertaining France side, celebrations were fully underway in the Emerald Isle with the trophy destined to head back over the Irish Sea.
With Ireland having beaten Scotland in the first game of the afternoon, England knew they needed a bonus-point win in Paris to keep their Six Nations hopes alive. They fell short. For so much of the game they failed to find any attacking cohesion and found it tough to break down the French defence. As England battered away, France waited and countered.
They should have won it in the closing stages. They had two attempts at an attacking lineout after Lionel Beauxis completely fluffed his lines by missing the kick to touch that would have ended the game after England's first lineout went awry. Then having teed up the perfect attacking platform, it looked like they were going to secure victory but knocked the ball on. Promise, but a lack of composure at the crucial time.
For France, their celebrations amid the flying tricolour showed how much this means. It was an expression of life and resurgence. Their score came through a penalty try, with Jaco Peyper yellow-carding Anthony Watson as well for his high hit on Benjamin Fall. It was harsh, as Fall dipped Watson who had no chance to react but the letter of the law left Peyper with little option.
England's grip on the Six Nations loosened at Murrayfield a fortnight ago when they were blown away by a first-half blitz from the Scots. Here in Paris, they were cast adrift. Their breakdown discipline was woeful, with Peyper whistling them off the park. Their back three of Watson, Jonny May and Elliot Daly only got a chance to fire in the final 10 minutes, while the George Ford-Owen Farrell axis failed to break down the French resolve.
France waited patiently, with Mathieu Bastareaud and Yacouba Camara both playing superbly, and forced England's hand when it mattered. Their half-backs had an armchair ride and despite the turgid first half, which lacked in innovation and any fluid phase play, France slowly got their selves together and did enough to get over the line for just their second win in 11 months -- the only other one was against Italy a fortnight ago. This was not a match England should have lost but they were off the pace.
Following Nathan Hughes' 24th-minute injury, England's paucity of gainline-breakers was stark and while there was plenty of effort, there was little territorial reward. Chris Robshaw, as always, got through a remarkable amount of work while Ben Te'o was always on call to carry into the heart of the French defence but there was a lack of urgency. England's lack of control over the breakdown, something that Scotland exploited to such great avail at Murrayfield, was alarming. Far too often they found themselves on the wrong side of referee Peyper, with 16 penalties conceded a story in itself.
What was also baffling was despite England getting the better of France in the set piece, they failed to build on those foundations. All that work was coming to naught until Jonny May eventually went over in the 74th minute, but by that time it was too little, too late.
For all of England's shortcomings, France deserve praise for the way in which they closed this game out. Guilhem Guirado is second only to Dane Coles in the world hooker rankings as he mixed deft touches with carrying and as the Stade de France started rocking to the beat of Les Bleus' drum, Bastareaud found himself more and more involved. He started the second half with two barnstorming hits and then forced England into conceding a penalty. He is more than just an immovable object, he can play.
And then there was Camara, the powerful back-row who carried well but also did some superb work in and around the breakdown. Geoffrey Doumayrou was also the perfect foil for Bastareaud at inside centre.
They have already taken strides under Jacques Brunel. He has installed some fight back into a team that were floundering at the turn of the year. With a little more organisation and playbook obedience, they will only improve.
It was only in the 71st minute that England really clicked. Te'o was inevitably at the heart of the break, but they were too lateral and momentum was lost. May's try came three minutes later, with Elliot Daly's neat flick teeing him up. But it was a rare moment of sunlight amid the gloom of a baffling performance where they only found momentum in the final throes of the match. It was a showing so uncharacteristic of Jones' reign.
England do not become a bad team overnight but it shows they have a huge amount of work to do if they are to challenge the All Blacks at the 2019 World Cup. This was a match they were capable of winning, and really should have done. But with their ill-discipline and lack of control at the breakdown, they never managed to build any momentum. Dublin will be the place to be tonight for those rugby devotees, but Paris will be a close second. England are now playing to spoil Ireland's Grand Slam party next Saturday. Twickenham on St. Patrick's Day will be the hottest ticket in town.