It was a beautiful day, a glorious game, and a great occasion. After a long, torpid sort of autumn when Test rugby has seemed, at times, pretty dull and bloodless, here was a glimpse of the best of the game, and in it there was the promise of better, brighter days ahead.
There were only a couple of thousand fans in Twickenham, as many as you might find packed into the queues for the loos at half‑time here any other year. But it was enough to lift the atmosphere, and, more important, to remind you what the point of it all is. Like Eddie Jones said afterwards, “they all went home with smiles on their faces”. After a year such as this one, that’s an achievement.
By the time Owen Farrell kicked the penalty that finally won the game, 15 minutes into extra time, the result had taken on outsize importance. You could see how much it mattered in the way England celebrated when the ball flew over between the posts. It was as if they’d won something far more important. By then, though, they weren’t just playing for the Autumn Nations Cup, or even for their pride, but a chance to prove their resilience and fortitude, to show they have the ability to adapt and overcome when a match is going against them. They did it, in the end, but it was a near‑run thing, far closer than almost anyone had imagined.
Almost anyone. Because Fabien Galthié and his rest of the French coaches must have believed they could do it. They’ve worked a miracle in the past two weeks. Circumstances forced France to select a desperately raw team, with a bare handful of international caps between them. The starting XV had a grand total of 68 and almost half of those belonged to the full-back Brice Dulin, who was one of only two players in the squad who’d played more than eight Tests. (The other, the prop Uini Antonio, was on the bench.) There were four players in England’s starting team who had at least 68 caps all on their own. Altogether, the team had 10 times as many.
Of course, France had already beaten England once this year, 24-17 in Paris in February. And they should have made it a double here. They fell just short but even so it’s clear they’re the coming team in Europe, and the rivalry between these two sides won’t just shape next year’s Six Nations but the next few years of European rugby. England will need to improve if they’re going to have the better of it. Jones knows it, too. He and his fellow coaches have done brilliant work developing the foundations of their side, developing the set-pieces, and their defence. But there’s no doubt, too, that they need to sharpen up their attack.
Jones has assembled what must be the most richly gifted team England have ever put together, full of skill in midfield, speed out wide, and power up front, and almost every man comfortable with the ball in hand. But all this work on the fundamentals has turned them into a pretty blunt and brutish lot. It’s a bit like watching a man use his new Swiss Army knife as a hammer. It was worst in the stretch right before half-time, when a French mistake gifted England an attacking lineout, and they squandered the opportunity in a series of head-down pick-and-go drives when there was acres of space out wide. The style was all the more pronounced here because of the contrast with the French, and in particular the way Matthieu Jalibert created their try from broken play with a lovely step into a half-gap between Farrell and Jamie George.
Jones was pretty prickly and defensive about it all afterwards, and argued that winning’s the thing and never mind how you go about it. Which is understandable, his team have won eight in a row now. And he’s right that the approach worked. When the heavy pressure was on, and England needed to score a try in the final minute to take the game into extra time, they got it by throwing almost every available man into a maul and bundling the ball over the line.
But England will need more, and soon, because there are stiffer challenges ahead. Happy as the fans were to be back, it was still noticeable that their opening blast of Swing Low gave way pretty quickly to a few throaty cries of “C’mon England”, half imprecation, half exhortation, all frustration. It’s been a few months since we’ve heard them, but they’ll be back, and louder, soon enough.