TWICKENHAM - England coach Eddie Jones calls his replacements "finishers," and with good reason.
It was their impact that swung this Six Nations game back in England's favour as the team continued their unbeaten run with a victory over France on Saturday. But for 70 minutes of this match, Les Bleus caused all sorts of problems.
Ben Te'o's direct running, the work of Jamie George in the loose, and the leadership of James Haskell -- all three were second-half replacements -- ensured the team chalked up win No. 15 on the bounce. But England looked vulnerable at stages and clearly missed a clutch of injured players.
The outstanding player was a Northampton Saint, but Louis Picamoles was wearing the blue of France. The usually sturdy, impenetrable fortress of Twickenham Stadium was shaken by his barnstorming runs into the heart of England's defence, and they found it fiercely difficult to cope with his physicality and leg drive. He had HQ on a piece of string -- arise King Louis.
Jones was preparing his team "for war" in the buildup to England's Six Nations opener, but for the first half of the game, they failed to show up for the battle. The fireworks that greeted the sides at the start then metamorphosed into Picamoles' and Scott Spedding's bulldozing runs. They ripped holes in England's defence while Jones' side looked uncharacteristically passive.
Les Bleus' plan to target the George Ford-Owen Farrell axis worked, and for the first half of the match, England struggled to find the tempo and rhythm that have underpinned so much of what they have done well. Passes failed to stick while the first lineout was a bizarre, disorganised mess, and if France had a dab more ruthlessness in the 22, they could have put this game out of sight.
But then came the replacements and the self-belief Jones has instilled in this team. Though France were the better side for much of the game, you always sensed England had enough about them to scrape across the line. Their fitness was key -- as was the case in the Australia series last summer, they secured the victories in the final throes of the match.
England missed their sidelined contingent. They lacked the brilliance of the Vunipola brothers (Billy and Mako), the organisational skills and set-piece glue of George Kruis, and the work-rate and leadership of Chris Robshaw. Jones will never use that as an excuse, but even though he is reluctant to put the Vunipola brothers into the "world-class" category, their absence showed just how important they are to the team Jones is building.
There were many frustrations with this performance, but Farrell was once again superb at inside centre -- his second-half tackle on Picamoles was one of the only times England managed to halt the No. 8 before he got into a stride - and his leadership was key to England getting a foothold in the match late on. Farrell's game management was superb and he was one of the galvanising figures in this England victory. Mike Brown, England's other vice captain, was effective from deep.
But it was the bench that swung it in England's favour. Jamie George is more effective in open field than captain Dylan Hartley, while Haskell's arrival in the 64th minute seemed to galvanise England. Te'o's brilliant line for the match-winning try showed why they missed the direct running of Billy Vunipola, while Te'o's superb late tackle halted a France counterattack.
France will consider this an opportunity missed. They could and perhaps should have won this match. While England's replacements proved crucial, the decision by France coach Guy Noves to replace outstanding scrum-half Baptiste Serin after 57 minutes was curious at best.
England know they have to improve if they are to repeat last year's Grand Slam heroics. Wales won't be so forgiving in punishing any slack play when they meet next Saturday. But Jones will look at this in relative, black-and-white terms. England won at less than their best, and it was the inner belief within his side that will perhaps please their coach most. The teams of previous chapters would have lost this match.
It was win No. 14 of the Jones era and a record 15th in a row, but this was one almighty fright.