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Owen Farrell kicks England to sudden-death Autumn Nations Cup final win

To England the spoils but their sudden-death victory in the final of the Autumn Nations Cup prompted more questions than it answered. If, on this evidence, you were to pick the likelier winner of the 2023 Rugby World Cup it would be France, despite the extra‑time “golden” penalty from Owen Farrell which earned the hosts another trophy and allowed them to dodge a chastening defeat to opponents lacking two dozen of their best players.

Few had given the heavily depleted French any chance of winning but here was a contest to add an extra frisson to this week’s key Brexit negotiations. Heading into the final couple of minutes of normal time, the inexperienced visitors were ahead 19-13 and looking set to conquer south-west London for the first time since 2007, only for some dubious refereeing calls to offer England a barely deserved lifeline.

If they are honest with themselves, Farrell and his team will acknowledge they would have had few grounds to complain had the Irish referee Andrew Brace spotted at least two crucial late English knock ons or not awarded one against Sekou Macalou when the French replacement was wrongly adjudged to have touched the ball direct from the kick-off for the second period of extra time. All three decisions proved significant, ultimately paving the way for Maro Itoje to steal the game with a critical turnover which may also have been a touch harsh on the French.

England had already missed one major opportunity to seal the deal when Farrell hit the inside of the right-hand upright early in added time but the centre, who also saw three penalty attempts fly wide in normal time, duly found the target with his angled 96th-minute ‘golden’ shot, reaching 1,000 career Test points in the process. On the scoreboard at least, having already clinched the 2020 Six Nations title, it rounded off a year in which England have consistently had the last laugh.

Is it churlish, then, to question the desperately limited gameplan that is coughing up these shiny baubles? Perhaps, but even England’s most fervent admirers cannot swerve a few home truths. Faced with a team keen to disrupt them at the lineout, compete equally vigorously at the breakdown and stand up physically, England looked horribly one-dimensional for long periods, their kicking obsession numbingly unambitious for a side with no shortage of potentially exciting backs. Had France turned up fully loaded, it would surely have been a different outcome.

The significantly less experienced visitors led for the majority of normal time, courtesy of a 19th-minute try from their outstanding full-back Brice Dulin and an influential display from the visiting outside-half Matthieu Jalibert. Previously this autumn England had mostly steamrollered every pack in front of them but this was a very different story. France have some extremely talented up-and-coming players as well as something even more priceless in the stilted modern game: a willingness to try something different occasionally.

Jalibert, in particular, is one of those fly-halves who appear to be strolling around until – too late – disappearing before you can say ‘Voila!’ Sure enough the Bordeaux 10 spotted the glimmer of a hole between Jamie George and Farrell, accelerated past the flat-footed England hooker and put an unmarked Dulin over for a classic try that is beginning to qualify under the heading “vintage”.

England, having preyed on some early French indiscipline, were suddenly on the back foot and required to play catch-up. Simply kicking the ball skywards and waiting for opposing errors was suddenly not enough, with Les Bleus visibly growing in confidence. After the cameras spotted Sam Underhill kicking the ball out of the hands of the visiting scrum-half, Jalibert kicked his second nerveless penalty and even a prolonged period of English pressure at the end of the half yielded nothing.

Shaun Edwards has already made a significant impact as France’s defensive coach and here was another example of his influence, the ball becoming dislodged from Ellis Genge’s grasp as he drove for the line. The half-time score of 13-6 was no less than France deserved and Eddie Jones’s desire for a sharp second-half improvement was evident in the abrupt 43rd-minute substitutions of Underhill and Joe Launchbury.

Even when Jalibert was forced to limp off, a brace of fine angled penalties from his replacement Louis Carbonel kept England at arm’s length until the dying moments of normal time when a trademark close-range score from Luke Cowan-Dickie gave his side a lifeline. Not since the 2003 World Cup have England found themselves in extra time but this time the rules were faintly bizarre. Had the score still been level after 100 minutes, England would have won by virtue of conceding nine penalties during the game to France’s 16, not exactly the stuff of schoolboy dreams. Instead, in front of 2,000 spectators who did their best to banish the ghost ship atmosphere of recent games, Alivereti Raka was fatally collared and held up by Tom Curry before Itoje and Farrell combined to deliver the coup de grâce. When France re-visit Twickenham in March, however, they will fancy righting a few wrongs.

Source:

www.theguardian.com

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