Nyanga shines as England improve

Date published: February 2 2014

That one will sting. Gaël Fickou's swerving run and dummy were a more than fitting end to Saturday's humdinger at the Stade de France.

That one will sting. Gaël Fickou has been recognised as a rising talent for some time and that swerving run and dummy were a more than fitting end to Saturday's humdinger at the Stade de France.

France were outstanding in the opening half hour, only to then retreat. How often do we see sides get out in front early on before being reeled back in, Ireland's loss to New Zealand being an example.

In the case of Les Bleus, who were playing at home but whose recent record made for dismal reading, building a 16-3 lead so early into the match was a nightmare. It gave France too much time to think, and England too much time to fight back.

In essence by the time Fickou struck to win it, France were playing their third battle within a match, having watched England flip the scoreline on its head from 16-3 to 16-21.

England's pack was lauded before kickoff but it was the performances of the French scrum (where Thomas Domingo made mincemeat of Dan Cole) and Yannick Nyanga that stole the show.

The Toulouse blindside hasn't put in a show-stopper such as this one for some time, but has now been in Test rugby for a decade and won a surprisingly low 35 caps in that time, missing the Rugby World Cup Final two years ago.

Now 30, his performance in the absence of Thierry Dusautoir was both necessary and sublime to see. 44 metres from five carries, 12 tackles, four lineouts won and seven defenders beaten. Hopefully this championship will see more of the same from him. France's lineout stuttered but he practically saved it single-handedly.

Which brings us to England's downfall. There were chances – Owen Farrell's missed drop goal, the ball not bouncing for the excellent Danny Care who was also stopped short of the line earlier on – but one moment stood out.

England have developed a worrying trait of failing to execute on key lineouts. With a throw five metres from the French line, Tom Youngs (whether by coincidence or not often the hooker throwing in during these situations) missed his man and England blew a chance to better their five-point lead in the final quarter.

Top teams don't miss their man at those lineouts, proving that England are not there yet. A rolling maul and try would have given France no way back.

The loss will hurt more when England look at the stats and realise they had 59% possession and 63% territory, along with making over 50 more carries than their hosts and nearly 100 more metres. Games should not be lost based on those.

Perhaps that's too harsh, because to focus on the flaws in England's game would distract from some quality individual performances and their impressive resolve and courage to flip that deficit on the scoreboard, in Paris of all places.

Joe Launchbury, Courtney Lawes, Tom Wood and Billy Vunipola all shone, producing a phenomenal workrate. Vunipola in particular is an absolute diamond.

Luther Burrell's try was all down to the Saracen, who absorbed three defenders and timed his pass to perfection. This was only his sixth cap, at the ripe old age of 21, but his carrying at times appears to be impossible to stop.

Farrell produced his most mature performance in an England shirt, kicking with authority and playing further up on the gain line than he has before to great effect.

Billy Twelvetrees impressed more with his carrying than his distribution and the likes of Chris Robshaw, Joe Marler and Dan Cole carried tirelessly.

Care, bold enough to tap a kickable penalty that lead to Mike Brown's try, has returned from exile with aplomb.

Losing Jonny May however to a suspected broken nose disrupted England's flow, forcing Stuart Lancaster to move Mike Brown back onto the wing where he last played during the nightmare against Wales.

By not selecting two full-backs England avoided having a lack of pace out wide, yet because of May's departure that was exactly the case when Yoann Huget skinned Alex Goode – who was caught out in defence not for the first time – on the way to his second try.

Those instances are cruel and unkind, but also part and parcel of the sport – as is the wicked bounce of the ball that lead to Huget's first score.

England rallied impressively and despite the loss this was a step forward, but they are not one of the world's best sides yet.

Lancaster though should take great heart from the way his young side hit back. They will now travel to Scotland next week bruised and wounded, but chomping at the bit to set things right.

by Ben Coles