By Mitch Phillips
LONDON (Reuters) – England overcame a poor first half to grind down France for a 19-16 victory to open the defence of their Six Nations title on Saturday, setting a national record of 15 successive victories in the process.
England were lucky to be level at 9-9 at halftime and trailed 16-12 after an hour as Rabah Slimani scored the opening try for France.
However, England’s strength off the bench turned the game as the replacements poured on and one of them, centre Ben Te’o, grabbed the decisive try nine minutes from time.
“The performance was ugly, but the result is beautiful,” said relieved England coach Eddie Jones.
“We made some silly handling errors, but we have some great finishers on the bench, we got really good value from them.”
Captain Dylan Hartley added: “Week one of the tournament we’ll take that win, but there’s plenty to work on.”
Last season England started poorly in Paris before emerging 31-21 winners to secure the grand slam and they were again slow out of the blocks on home ground.
A first half full of errors, poor decisions and the concession of avoidable penalties – including one dangerous tackle that earned Jonny May a yellow card – ensured that France were in the driving seat.
However, both defences were solid and three Camille Lopez penalties for the visitors against two from Owen Farrell and a monster 48-metre effort by Elliot Daly produced the only points.
France, seeking their first Six Nations title since 2010 and with only one tournament win at Twickenham in the past 20 years, will have been frustrated not to have taken more from their impressive opening, with young scrumhalf Baptiste Serin looking a lively addition.
England were much more assured in the second half and after Daly had a try ruled out for a toe in touch, finally edged ahead with another Farrell penalty after sustained pressure.
France then struck with their first attack of the half on the hour mark as good aggressive running and great offloads by the forwards sent replacement prop Slimani over.
England coach Eddie Jones responded by throwing on most of his bench, who made an immediate impact.
James Haskell, who has barely played this season, looked a man possessed and after a superb passage of play, T’eo blasted through with Farrell converting.
This time England were not about to let the lead slip and showed the sort of game-closing nous that was their trademark under Clive Woodward when his side set the previous record of 14 straight wins from 2002-03.
After Scotland’s surprise victory over Ireland earlier on Saturday, England’s title odds have shortened dramatically and they will travel to Wales next Saturday delighted to have found a way to dig out this victory.
There was plenty for the French to like too as they turn their attention to next Sunday’s game against the Scots in Paris but the immediate reaction was one of frustration.
“It’s hard to swallow, after being so close to the try line so many times,” said captain Guilhem Guirado.
“It’s just like in November (in defeats by Australia and New Zealand). I hope there will be better days because right now it’s tough.”
(Editing by Neil Robinson.)