England produced their best performance since the 2019 World Cup semi-final to end France’s Grand Slam hopes following a 23-20 victory at Twickenham.
Les Blues led 20-16 until the 76th minute when Maro Itoje bulldozed over the whitewash from short range and with Owen Farrell rifling over the conversion, they had edged the tournament favourites.
It was England’s best performance of the tournament by a distance, full of endeavour and flashes of clinical execution, with Henry Slade and Tom Curry excelling.
Enabling them to go toe-to-toe with the favourites – at least initially – was their improved discipline and having given away 41 penalties across the opening three rounds, they escaped the whistle of referee Andrew Brace until the 25th minute.
A week spent addressing their self-destructive streak appeared to have paid off, but it proved a stubborn Achilles heel as old failings re-emerged in a cagey second-half where avoiding mistakes became paramount.
Some of France’s play was irresistible, especially for Damian Penaud’s try, but they also displayed the hard edge needed to take the 108th instalment of ‘Le Crunch’ to the death.
It was not enough to stop England escaping further Six Nations misery, however, after two defeats had place head coach Eddie Jones under mounting pressure.
In the latest in a succession of dismal starts, England conceded the first try after only 65 seconds when wing Teddy Thomas chipped over full-debutant Max Malins and Antoine Dupont arrived to gather and touch down.
It was the sixth match in a row where they have leaked the opening try, but on this occasion their response was immediate and emphatic.
Henry Slade contributed two big carries as pressure built on the French line and the second charge by the Exeter Chief was pivotal, creating the space for George Ford to send Anthony Watson over in the 11th minute.
England were displaying the attacking intent shown in Cardiff a fortnight earlier as Watson effortlessly slid into space and for once it was the opposition who were being punished by the referee as Farrell landed two penalties.
In control of every department of the game, Jones’ fallen champions were playing some of their best rugby seen since the 2019 tournament in Japan but when they eventually conceded their first penalty, France took control.
Matthieu Jalibert was on target from the kicking tee before an attacking line-out saw the fly-half combine brilliantly with Julien Marchand, the dazzling movement in midfield creating the space for Penaud to cross.
🇫🇷 That's @FranceRugby at its very best.
— Guinness Six Nations (@SixNationsRugby) March 13, 2021
It was now France who were storming into rucks and running hard at half-openings to pin England in their 22 and threaten another try.
Kyle Sinckler knocked on at the end of a muscular thrust through heavy traffic to end a breathless first half full of quality play, with France marginally on top with a 17-13 lead.
Two trips to the visiting 22, the second after a sharp break by Ben Youngs, got England moving again but each time the attack ended in a penalty.
And when France entered their half, they infringed again to allow Jalibert to kick Les Bleus seven points clear before Farrell responded to increase the tension in blustery conditions at Twickenham.
The third quarter was balanced on a knife edge and in a worrying sign, Brace was punishing them with increasing frequency.
France were piling on pressure once more but they fell apart at the scrum and the pendulum swung again.
England’s bench were making a real difference, especially Elliot Daly who glided into space with ease armed with a point to prove after being dropped for Malins.
And the crucial blow was delivered by Itoje in the closing stages as he used his power to score a vital try.