England remain on course for Grand Slam
Updated: Saturday, 23 Feb 2013 19:07
Manu Tuilagi won the battle of brute force as England took a giant step towards their first Grand Slam in a decade with a 23-13 victory over France at Twickenham.
Tuilagi went toe-to-toe in a seismic midfield collision with Mathieu Bastareaud and came out on top, scoring the decisive try as France were sent crashing to a third straight defeat.
The Tuilagi-Bastareaud contest was a microcosm of a ferociously physical game which England edged after taking control in the final quarter.
Stuart Lancaster's men trailed by a point at the interval after a brilliant try from Wesley Fofana.
But Owen Farrell kicked 12 points and Toby Flood slotted two penalties to send England fans home dreaming that those heady days of 2003 could be repeated.
England won the RBS 6 Nations title in 2011 but they have not completed a clean sweep since Martin Johnson led them to the Grand Slam 10 years ago.
Chris Robshaw is two matches, against Italy at home and Wales away, from doing the same. The England captain was named man of the match, his credentials to lead the British and Irish Lions growing stronger by the match.
England had beefed up their side in preparation for a power contest with the inclusions of Tuilagi to start opposite Bastareaud, Dylan Hartley and Courtney Lawes - who made his first Test start at blindside flanker.
The collisions were thundering, the breakdown battle ferocious. It was an arm-wrestle with few moments of artistry. At the end it was England who were still standing.
With three consecutive defeats, France have now equalled their worst start to a Five/Six Nations championship for 31 years. From pre-tournament favourites they are now bottom of the table.
For the best part of an hour, with Morgan Parra and Francois Trinh-Duc reinstated in the half-backs and Fofana in midfield, they had looked a different side to the one that lost to Italy and Wales.
Farrell kicked England into a first-minute lead but France responded with Trinh-Duc's intricate chip over the top for Fofana drawing the hosts offside and Parra equalised.
France used their power runners and they won an early victory in the scrum battle. England were not rattled but they were being tested.
Farrell was fired up, twice engaging in scraps with French full-back Yoann Huget and taking out Parra off the ball before England, who had lacked fluidity, dug in a foothold.
Tuilagi burst through one defender and into the French 22 before he was felled by a brilliant, try-saving tackle from Parra.
With a penalty coming, Farrell overhit a chip to the corner aimed at Ashton but the England fly-half slotted the shot at goal to restore the lead.
Two minutes later, Fofana scored a brilliant solo try, evading five tackles in a blistering break down the left wing after France had moved the ball wide quickly.
Fofana slipped out of Lawes' grasp, evaded Joe Marler and brushed off Ashton before streaking clear, showing too much pace and footwork for Ben Youngs and Ashton again. It was a brilliant moment and Parra converted for a 10-6 lead.
England, though, are unflappable. A trademark burst from Mike Brown carried England deep into French territory and Farrell kicked his third penalty after Thomas Domingo failed to roll away.
England's set-piece was under pressure at the start of the second half. They conceded a scrum penalty on their own ball but received a let off when Parra pulled his kick wide.
France then stole an England lineout inside their own 22 but Geoff Parling secured the next one and Farrell restored the lead with a fourth penalty after Les Bleus had pulled down the maul.
It was a game of small victories such as that. England built some momentum and then lost it when Tom Wood was penalised for holding on. Neither side could take control.
England made a triple substitution after 51 minutes with Tom Youngs, James Haskell and Mako Vunipola sent on. France introduced Frederik Michalak.
The decisive moment came two minutes later. Tom Wood stuck an unspotted boot on the ball at the bottom of a ruck and it ricocheted out to Tuilagi, who galloped over in the corner.
England carelessly conceded a quick penalty which Michalak stroked over before Farrell, who had scuffed his conversion shot, pulled a penalty attempt wide and limped off injured.
But the England bench made by far the greater impact and it was in the final quarter that Lancaster's men began to assume control. Without Parra and Trinh-Duc, France toiled.
Ashton was denied a try from Flood's cross kick by the bounce of the ball but the replacement fly-half wrapped up the victory with two penalties.