Chabal cameo tears England apart

12th Aug 2007, 11:25

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Flying: Skrela looks to spark the French flair

Flying: Skrela looks to spark the French flair

A rampaging last twenty minutes by France number eight Sébastien Chabal, including a late try, helped France to a 21-15 win over England at Twickenham on Saturday.

A rampaging last twenty minutes by France star Sébastien Chabal, including a late try, helped France to a 21-15 win over England at Twickenham on Saturday.

England gave their beleaguered fans reason for hope by demolishing Wales last weekend.

But those English hopes, as so often before, turned out to be tomorrow's veneer on yesterday's disappointments. France scratched the surface and found more MDF than oak.

Perhaps that's harsh. England are still experimenting with combinations and are just emerging from a long period in the Test wilderness.

Should we not still consider a tight game against a decent French side as a mock-triumph?

For long periods of this game the men in white had the better of their guests and showed the moments of skill, fluidity and adventure that were lacking against the Welsh.

Indeed, a fifth successive home win under Brian Ashton looked on the cards after Olly Barkley booted four penalties and Andy Gomarsall dropped a goal.

But Chabal struck nine minutes from time, powering through weak English defence for the decisive score of a gripping game.

If only that was the difference. Unfortunately, England's problems run deeper than a rampaging caveman.

Despite the bulldog, the technical nous and the muscle, England lack the instincts of the French - the ability to read situations and adapt play accordingly.

What will depress the hoards drinking away their sorrows in the shadow of the West Stand is that such skills aren't coached, they are dished out at birth.

England's main difficulty was converting hard pressure into inventive points. Having made the hard yards, their backs failed to find the line.

In contrast, France fly-half David Skrela and his replacement Frédéric Michalak had the time and inclination to use the whole width of the pitch. How England's behemoth forwards failed to get up their noses will be a question Brian Ashton must answer by next weekend.

As for England's brigade of 'maybes', Ben Kay, Jamie Noon and Josh Lewsey held their hands up high; Nick Abendanon and Paul Sackey had some good moments. Olly Barkley and James Haskell might be wishing they could have auditioned in their preferred positions.

It was Barkley, playing fly-half, who punctuated a nervy opening spell by bagging a penalty after France were found guilty of holding on in the tackle in the ninth minute of the game.

France hit straight back, catapulting Aurelien Rougerie at England's midfield. The ball was recycled and a floated pass from the nerveless Skrela found Fabien Pelous lurking in the tramlines, and the big lock duly celebrated his return to the Test stage by beating Josh Lewsey's despairing tackle to score an unconverted try in the corner.

England's errors then began to mount and the visitors soon had a shot at goal for an English infringement at the breakdown. Skrela pocketed the points and the writing appeared to be on the wall for England.

But the locals responded well and some slick inter-passing between their forwards indicated that they were warming to the task.

The endeavour was rewarded as David Marty's lazy running handed Barkley a long-distance shot at goal, and the Bath star made no mistake.

Unwilling to be outshone, once again, by their big-boned mates, England's backline began exchanging passes and a superb break by Mike Catt gave France some food for thought.

Rougerie was then pinged for obstruction and Barkley stepped up to give England the lead with another fine shot at goal. Against the odds, England were ahead with seven minutes until the break.

France immediately tacked out of the doldrums as Damien Traille cut the white line in two. The speed of the move left big Andrew Sheridan marooned in an off-side position, and Skrela took the points on offer to steal back the lead.

Shaun Perry sparked the next England attack, shepherding his big forwards into gaps as the French beat an enforced retreat.

The back-pedalling blues were eventually forced to snuff out the move illegally, and Barkley duly snatched back the lead to leave the half-time scored poised at 12-11 in favour of the locals.

France's cool was shaken in the early stages of the second half as Skrela missed a kick at goal and Noon killed a raid with a fabulous tackle/turnover in midfield.

England's defence grew more confident as France channelled their attacks, somewhat naively, at England's well-manned fringes.

And like old Chief Bromden in 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest', the English suddenly seemed to become aware of their own muscularity and began to assert their authority on the visitors.

France were soon pinned to their line, but England's backs failed to take advantage of what was on offer. It was Gomarsall, on for Perry, who finally took the initiative by slotting a drop-goal.

France responded to England's growing confidence by unleashing the odd couple of Frédéric Michalak and Sébastien Chabal, thereby adding a little beauty - and a sizeable slab of beast - to proceedings.

The gamble soon paid off as Chabal forced England to cough up a penalty in defence, and Jean-Baptiste Elissalde, on for Pierre Mignoni, brought France within one point.

England then pulled a France on France, running back a failed touch-finder at pace, with Abendanon to the fore. But Les Bleus stood firm and repelled the attack with some terrific defence, Dimitri Szarzewski's tackle on the glory-bound Phil Vickery being the hit of the day.

France were now visibly pumped, and it was time for their double substitution to make its mark.

The dancing feet of Michalak momentarily mesmerised England's defence, and it was then on to Chabal who bulldozed over both Abendanon and Lewsey to score in the corner.

Skrela converted and the tables were well and truly turned.

England had seven minutes to save the day and took the game to the visitors.

Ashton's final throw of the dice saw Jonny Wilkinson replace Catt with two minutes left, and a turn-over on the French line had the Twickenham faithful on their feet.

But a lack of precision at the critical moment - a recurring theme in England's game - allowed France off the hook.