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Saturday, 15 February, 2003, 21:18 GMT
England fail to find top gear
Jason Robinson was one of England's star performers
Jason Robinson scored England's only try of the game

It is testament to England's expanding horizons that merely beating their perennial rivals for the Six Nations title is no longer cause for celebration in itself.

Where one might have expected smiles of satisfaction after seeing off the French threat at Twickenham, a strangely sombre mood settled on headquarters.

Admittedly, the tragic loss of England scrum-half Nick Duncombe on Friday was bound to cast a heavy cloud over proceedings, regardless of the result.

With several of the side close to the 21-year-old Harlequin, the traditional ingredients of 'Le Crunch' were put into some welcome perspective.

But given the mauling they received at the Stade de France last March, England can take plenty of heart from the manner in which they sent the French packing.

Defence coach Phil Larder was no doubt having kittens as Les Bleus prized apart the white barricades twice in the last quarter to entertain thoughts of a late mugging.

Jonny Wilkinson
Jonny Wilkinson scored 20 of England's points
And England were again indebted to the timely intervention of Ben Cohen as the Northampton wing bundled France centre Damien Traille into touch to prevent another try as injury time loomed.

But after falling behind when Olivier Magne plundered Charlie Hodgson's poor clearance after quarter of an hour, England showed commendable calm in adversity.

They dominated the second and third quarters either side of half-time to such an extent that France barely made it into the English half.

The metronomic kicking of Jonny Wilkinson punished every French indiscretion, while his opposite number Gerald Merceron had a woeful day with the boot.

And in the twinkled-toed Jason Robinson, England had a player to inspire those around him to greater deeds.

It was fitting that the full-back scored England's only try - his ninth in 15 Tests - for it was he who did most to keep the French defence guessing all day.

From the first minute, when he took a throw-in to himself and promptly bamboozled three would-be tacklers, Robinson sparkled with his energy and unpredictability.

One moment defined his contribution.

With England leading 9-7 but France threatening their line, Robinson retrieved a loose ball and sent a booming clearance into the French half.

England's Richard Hill hands-off Gerald Merceron
Merceron (left) spent much of the game in defence
He proceeded to chase down the retreating Xavier Garbajosa with such intent that he made up 40 metres on the French centre before dumping him on his backside to the delight of the crowd.

From that moment, England raised their game sufficiently to have the match won by midway through the second half, only to allow France back into it late on.

The reigning champions belatedly showed their devastating potential with the ball in hand, but were otherwise disappointing in their high quota of handling errors.

England's intensity never reached the same levels as it did during their victorious autumn, but it did not need to until it was time to man the barricades in injury time.

Perhaps it was always likely when the competition's most prestigious, and usually decisive, fixture was the first for both teams in the championship.

But as France proved last season, Grand Slams require plenty of grind to accompany the glitter.

And if this victory fell into the former category, the latter will surely follow.


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