By Mitch Phillips
LONDON (Reuters) – England’s growing strength in depth was underlined in bold at Twickenham on Saturday as the influx of replacements in the last 20 minutes dragged the initiative from France and helped the Six Nations champions battle out a 19-16 victory.
England trailed 16-12 after an hour as Rabah Slimani scored the opening try for France, who had been the better team for most of the first half.
Within minutes coach Eddie Jones had virtually emptied his bench and the fresh men made an immediate impact.
Flanker James Haskell, who has played only a few minutes all season after toe surgery, prop Matt Mullan, winger Jack Nowell, scrumhalf Danny Care and burly centre Ben Te’o were all immediately involved in a sustained period of pressure, as was Maro Itoje, who seemed to get a second wind after being switched back to his preferred lock role after starting in the back row.
The relentless attack and fresh legs punched holes in the tiring French defence and Te’o blasted through one of them for the decisive try two minutes after coming on.
“The finishers made a fantastic impact on the game, we got really good value from them and that is the strength of our team, we have a brilliant 23-man squad,” said Jones, who were without five first-team regulars.
Hooker and captain Dylan Hartley, who as usual gave way to Jamie George midway through the second half, agreed. “A huge amount of credit needs to go to our finishers today. Ben Te’o and James Haskell gave us some go forward at the end there,” he said.
“Jamie George came on and our set-piece was outstanding, Matt Mullan came on and shored things up. Everyone who came on today added something to the performance.”
The strong finish could not, however, disguise the fact that England had been poor to the point of ragged in the first half and were lucky to reach the break at 9-9.
So there was no fanfare from Jones, despite chalking up a national record 15th successive victory.
“It doesn’t get much uglier than that,” said the coach, who during the week had called for his side to be “daring”.
“We weren’t our usual urgent selves and maybe I’ve got to look at the preparation I gave the team.
“The performance was ugly, but the result is beautiful.”
A losing bonus point and man of the match honours for number eight Louis Picamoles were scant consolation for France, who have won only one Six Nations game at Twickenham in 20 years.
“It was a very good performance from us but we lose again,” he said. “We need to win and continue to work hard but it was a good performance.
“The positive to take is the spirit we had. We stayed strong the whole game against a strong side but we need to be more pragmatic and we need to take the points when we go on the attack.”
(Editing by Neil Robinson.)