Let the games commence! France, hosts of the forthcoming Rugby World Cup, laid down an outsized marker in the shape of a well-executed 22-9 victory over England at Stade Velodrome in Marseille on Saturday.
England ventured to Marseille with the objective of boosting their fragile confidence. They will leave battered, bruised and no better off in terms of self-belief, for while their defence was stout and manful, their attack was bordering on non-existent.
In a game full of passion it was little surprise to see emotions simmering and then boiling over with a regularity that demonstrated the importance of this game to both sides.
England, however, would have been better advised to channel their energy into conjuring a cutting edge in their back line play.
The lack of tries, and for that matter the lack of try-scoring opportunities, will be a major concern for Brian Ashton, especially given that their next game is indeed the first of their title defence. While Andy Farrell was a rock in defence you sense that he is not the answer at inside centre on attack.
The French pack took to the field with last week's harsh criticisms ringing in their ears, and it was evident in the manner with which the tore into England from the off.
England's hideous red shirts may have been the rag to the bull that tipped the French into such a frenzied state.
Credit to England, then, for standing toe-to-toe with their counterparts, but ultimately they could not match them for the duration.
It was the first-half battering that allowed the space to open up after the break. That France failed to win by a more substantial margin is a result of their own mistakes, the most glaring of these from Imañol Harinordoquy which cost his side a clear seven points.
Simon Shaw was a beacon in the England pack, leading the rebuke time and again. But a yellow card for a dangerous tackle on Damien Traille on the stoke of half-time seemed to take the sting out of his game - it was during that period where France effectively killed the game off, but it was the foundations laid in the opening stanza that paved the way.
After a ferocious opening fifteen minutes Jonny Wilkinson nudged England into a three-point lead with a straight forward penalty, only to see his effort cancelled out two minutes later by a Jean-Baptiste Elissalde effort.
As was often the case, it was England's lack of discipline at critical moments that cost them so dear. Shaun Perry's pointless tackle on Harinordoquy when the ball was clearly still in the scrum was the first of these frustrating moments of madness. Yet another worry for Ashton who was looking for a more mature display from his charges.
There was simply no controlling the macho battle at times, with Martin Corry and Fabien Pelous coming to blows on more than one occasion.
One got the impression that the respective forward packs were intent on seeing who could flex their muscle the most. That these showdowns often descended into heated discussions added to the already intense atmosphere at Stade Velodrome.
With the scores tied at a measly three apiece, the remainder of the first half was dominated by the boot of Elissalde who added three more penalties before the break. The last a result of Shaw's careless swinging arm in a tackle. It was this same incident that led to England skipper Phil Vickery being stretchered from the field.
Luckily for England, Vickery, having been knocked out, was seen sitting up and talking to medical staff during the interval. They will need his teak-tough frame to be in the best possible fettle as they now embark on their defence of the Webb Ellis trophy.
The needless England infringements continued after the break, and as referee Alain Rolland said to Matt Stevens after he entered a ruck from the side, most of the infringements were "stupid and pointless". Not so for France as they served up further chances for points, that Elissalde missed the resultant shot at goal was a small reprieve for Stevens.
In fact it was Wilkinson who booted the next three points to trim the margin to just six points, but with Shaw still cooling his heels it was France who added fuel to the already roaring fire and stepped up their game.
Firstly the energetic Yannick Nyanga rampaged towards the line only to drop the ball in the act of grounding. And then Yannick Jauzion struck the telling blow. From Nyanga's knock-on the England scrum was destroyed earning France the put in.
A telling drive towards the line from Harinordoquy was followed by the simplest of finishes. Frédéric Michalak drew the defence onto himself with a clever line of running before slipping the ball on the inside to Jauzion. Such was the centre's angle that Farrell was unable to stop him and all of a sudden England were starring down the barrel.
Following the latest bout of fighting, again involving Corry, Wilkinson chipped over his third penalty attempt. Yet as hard as they tried to create something other than kicking opportunities, France were full of answers in defence and effectively blunted England's less than razor-sharp attack.
Having said that, Harinordoquy was hardly sharpening knives with his butchering of a guaranteed try. With Clément Poitrenaud wide open five metres from the line, the Biarritz number eight opted for the Chabal approach and clattered into Mark Cueto. Unfortunately for Harinordoquy he does not have the same impact as Chabal, and Cueto was equal to the tackle and with that went France's last try-scoring opportunity.
Michalak did add a further three points to condemn the English misery before the game died away in the closing stages.
England need to find a try-scoring source and quickly. They may have put nine on Wales's fringe team but all but one of those came through the forwards with a combined yardage of about ten metres. The simple truth is they won't be able to bully the likes of South Africa in the forward exchanges.
France, well they were typically French. For long periods they were happy to match England and batter their way around the pitch. But unlike England, when the cracks appeared they utilised their options and developed nicely as the game went on. So much so that in the second half England were totally outplayed.
So Brian Ashton has three weeks and only training to rectify England's shortcomings. The alternative is an early flight home in September.
Man of the Match: For England Andy Farrell was a tower of strength in defence and this was without doubt his best game in an England shirt to date. Tom Rees was lively but faded in the second half. Then there was Simon Shaw, who, a yellow card aside, was England's best player. Yet this award must go to a Frenchman. Cédric Heymans was exciting with ball in hand, and Yannick Jauzion showed glimpses of his devastating form. But we have gone for the industrious Yannick Nyanga. His endless running with ball in hand and tireless work in defence allowed those around him extra time and space. A class performance worthy of the award.
Moment of the Match: It has to be Simon Shaw's yellow card. With the match hanging in the balance and going towards the break, it was Shaw's high shot and departure to the sin-bin that allowed France to press on and seal the game.
Villain of the Match: The tempers may have boiled over on a regular basis but none of it was too malicious. Simon Shaw's high tackle was deserving of a yellow card but not this award. We instead give it to the designer of England's kit. Their 'home' kit is not exactly fetching but this little number was horrendous and hardly befitting of our glorious game.
Pen: Elissalde 4, Michalak
Pens: Wilkinson 3
Yellow card(s): Shaw (England) - high tackle, 40
France: 15 Clément Poitrenaud, 14 Cédric Heymans 13 Damien Traille, 12 Yannick Jauzion, 11 Christophe Dominici, 10 Frédéric Michalak, 9 Jean-Baptiste Elissalde, 8 Imañol Harinordoquy, 7 Thierry Dusautoir, 6 Yannick Nyanga, 5 Jérôme Thion, 4 Fabien Pelous, 3 Jean-Baptiste Poux, 2 Raphaël Ibañez (captain), 1 Olivier Milloud.
Replacements: 16 Sébastian Bruno, 17 Nicolas Mas, 18 Lionel Nallet, 19 Julien Bonnaire, 20 Pierre Mignoni, 21 David Skréla, 22 Aurélien Rougerie.
England: 15 Mark Cueto, 14 Josh Lewsey, 13 Dan Hipkiss, 12 Andy Farrell, 11 Jason Robinson, 10 Jonny Wilkinson, 9 Shaun Perry, 8 Nick Easter, 7 Tom Rees, 6 Martin Corry, 5 Steve Borthwick, 4 Simon Shaw, 3 Phil Vickery (c), 2 George Chuter, 1 Perry Freshwater.
Replacements: 16 Lee Mears, 17 Matt Stevens, 18 Joe Worsley, 19 Lawrence Dallaglio, 20 Andy Gomarsall, 21 Olly Barkley, 22 Paul Sackey.
Referee: Alain Rolland (Ireland)
Touch judges: Alan Lewis (Ireland), Nigel Owens (Wales)
By Marcus Leach