If there was a nagging feeling that England’s two previous wins over Italy and Wales had covered some cracks in this rebuild under Steve Borthwick, then the most humiliating day in Twickenham history opened them up and revealed the shameful core beneath.
Never before in the 152 years of international rugby has an England team suffered such a heavy home defeat. France dismantled their hosts 53-10 – eclipsing their 42-6 loss to South Africa in 2008 – to give Borthwick’s men a humbling reminder of exactly where they stand in the pecking order just six months before a World Cup.
As a reminder, France aren’t even the best team in this Six Nations. That distinction belongs to Ireland and, as luck would have it, England travel to Dublin next week to finish their campaign. Get your calculators ready – based on this performance, the 76-0 loss to Australia in the ‘tour from hell’ in 1998 could be under threat.
England were dark as their opponents dominated every facet of the game and scored seemingly at will. Any credibility Borthwick might have acquired as a former England captain with an impressive coaching CV early in his career and as the ideal, down-to-earth man to watch the drama of the unpopular Eddie Jones era has probably been extinguished. He’ll need to find answers and fast, because another screen like this and the knives will be out soon.
The grey, dreary skies reflected England’s performance and, if this was a GCSE English essay, the opportunity to say that the rain that fell at Twickenham was a form of pathetic fallacy reflecting England’s mood would be too good to pass up. Sure enough, the positives of the previous two games were washed away in a horror first half.
Full-back Freddie Steward was the only Englishman to emerge from the opening corner with any credit, as some powerful kicking helped to take the pressure off early on, and his second-half try after a powerful carry was unworthy of his performance. However, as if to sum up the futility of England’s era, even he was outplayed by Romain Ntamack to set up another France late in the second 40.
While the pre-match talk was about Borthwick’s decision to start Marcus Smith at fly half in place of Owen Farrell, the England manager is unlikely to be any closer to knowing whether this is the optimal set-up going forward . The Harlequins playmaker showed the flashes of athleticism we’ve come to expect, with a couple of half-breaks and scrums after French defenders offering tantalizing glimpses of what his explosive ability could bring to anything resembling a functioning attack.
Instead, England just couldn’t get out of their own way as more relaxed first-half displays ensured the game ended as a contest on 40 minutes. It wouldn’t have mattered if Smith, Farrell or the all-time great Jonny Wilkinson had been in the No 10 shirt, no one could have put this iconic version of England in a winning display.
The English pack dominated steadily from the first minute. Take nothing away from the French back row of François Kross, Charles Olivant and Gregory Aldritt, who were all excellent but met little resistance as the home forwards went wide.
Ollivon was instrumental in the first try, with just three minutes on the clock, as his quick break and sumptuous offload to Thibaud Flament eventually allowed Ethan Dumortier to square the final defender and send Thomas Ramos for a simple run- in.
The second and third scores saw it all come together as, firstly – after Antoine Dupont’s exquisite strike at 50:22 gave his side an attacking line – the team turned forward and allowed Flament to slot through. Then, on the stroke of half-time, Les Bleus’ scrum broke up England’s front row, Alldritt had an acre of space down the blindside and offloaded to Ollivon for the try. The 27-3 deficit England faced at the break was their biggest in the 117-year history of this competition. If England hoped this would be the nadir, they were sorely mistaken.
Alldritt and Cros in particular made mincemeat of the opposition at the breakdown, winning penalty after penalty as they got over the top of the ball much quicker than their English counterparts.
With a team moving backwards, England had little quality ball, but when they did, the full-backs always squandered it. As the rain fell and the conditions became slippery, crashes were a depressingly regular sight. Anthony Watson spilled a high ball just outside his own 22, Jack van Poortvliet raced forward at the breakdown on several occasions and a gifted 22 after a blocked kick was promptly hit.
Van Poortvliet – who has been asked to play the role that Danny Care does for Harlequins in order to unlock Smith’s full potential – continued the Six Nations sub. A box cut hit straight in the air on 15 minutes deep in his own half after asking players to join the ruck to form the protective caterpillar summed up his lack of invention and the scattered nature of his display.
He was pinned by Borthwick just five minutes into the second half and in a cruel twist of fate, replacement Alex Mitchell promptly chipped the ball perfectly to a towering Steward for England’s only try. The lone bright spot in the darkest of days. His old team boss Borthwick rightly believes in the talented young No 9, but Van Poortvliet’s recent performances suggest that Mitchell will likely start the final against Ireland.
Not that Steward’s score signaled any sort of turnaround. Instead, Flament crossed for his second try, Ollivon cleverly laid the ball on after England were driven behind their own line and Damian Penaud was twice chased down the right with questionable tackles to take the score past 50 and complete the humiliation.
The disarray in which England found themselves was summed up well when, with no good backs left, back-up hooker Jack Walker was forced to pass for center Ollie Lawrence midway through the second half. No. 8 Alex Dobrand moved to the back line, playing as a sort of winger. He was the man who lost a tackle on Penaud for the French flyer’s first score, but if it’s a manager’s job to put his players in a position to succeed, then Cimbrandt may rightly be disappointed with Borthwick. Something has gone wrong when he is left one-on-one with one of the most prolific wingers in world rugby.
It almost felt unfair that this was Ellis Genge’s captaincy debut – a permanent black mark on his international career which, frankly, wasn’t really his fault. He couldn’t do much to stem the tidal wave of embarrassment and referee Ben O’Keefe’s management was generally good. Even the pickiest of critics who say England should have scored the points when they were 10-0 down early, instead of going to the corner and spurning the chance, have to admit it was irrelevant in the final tally.
Where do England go from here – who knows? Well, the literal answer is in Dublin to face the unstoppable power of the world’s No.1 team in seven days, but there are much bigger philosophical questions and it’s hard to believe they have the answers.