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Six Nations

England beat France for first Grand Slam since 2003

England fought off a tough challenge from the French to win 31-21 and confirm their remarkable transformation from World Cup flops to Six Nations Grand Slam winners
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England's prop Joe Marler congratulates England's lock George Kruis (C) during the Six Nations international rugby union match between England and Wales at Twickenham.

--------------------------- Match report ---------------------------

England, led by bullocking No 8 Billy Vunipola, confirmed their remarkable transformation from World Cup flops to Six Nations Grand Slam winners when they beat France 31-21 on Saturday.

The victory was Australian coach Eddie Jones' fifth straight win since taking over from Stuart Lancaster, the English having seen off Scotland (15-9), Italy (40-9), Ireland (21-10) and Wales (25-21).

It was England's first Grand Slam since their World Cup-winning year of 2003, when Jones was in charge of losing finalists Australia.

But it was not easy going at the Stade de France for England, who scored three tries through Danny Care, Dan Cole and Anthony Watson with Owen Farrell contributing 16 points with the boot.

A rash of ruck infringements allowed France to keep in the game through scrum-half Maxime Machenaud, who booted seven penalties in a flawless kicking display.

Machenaud got the scoreboard rolling after Maro Itoje was pinged at a ruck, but Farrell responded immediately when France skipper Guilhem Guirado was penalised for a dangerous tackle.

France delighted a packed stadium by running the ball with intent, Scott Spedding and Virimi Vakatawa, born in South Africa and Fiji respectively, both splitting the English defence only for final passes to go amiss.

Livewire scrum-half Care, who dictated a fast pace, showed up some lax ruck defence by stepping straight through a gap left by lumbering prop Jefferson Poirot and crossing for a well-taken try, converted by Farrell.

England's players celebrate after the match.
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England's players celebrate after the match.CHARLES PLATIAUREUTERS

France suffered a blow when Francois Trinh-Duc limped off after 13 minutes to be replaced by Jules Plisson at fly-half.

Spedding broke through again, with France finally showing their attacking muster after generally failing to fire in tight wins over Italy (23-21) and Ireland (10-9) and defeats by Wales (19-10) and Scotland (29-18).

Machenaud booted his second penalty, but England again came firing back up the pitch, prop Cole bundling over the line for a try Farrell again converted.

England, with Billy Vunipola and flanker James Haskell to the fore, denied wave after wave of home attack, Machenaud keeping France in the game with a third penalty after another ruck infringement.

It was then France's turn to defend and they did so with aplomb as Care marshalled his team from left to right, before two knock-ons undid English efforts.

Machenaud knocked over a fourth penalty to leave the score 17-12 at half-time with Farrell missing his second effort.

France opened the second period with an early charge by Vakatawa, the winger hauled down by opposite number Jack Nowell with the line abegging, Machenaud kicking a fifth penalty to bring the home side within two points.

The tit-for-tat continued as Farrell banged over his own penalty as Guirado strayed offside before Machenaud booted his sixth.

England's prop Mako Vunipola (L) is tackled by France's hooker and captain Guilhem Guirado.
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England's prop Mako Vunipola (L) is tackled by France's hooker and captain Guilhem Guirado.THOMAS SAMSONAFP

Then came Watson's try after a brilliant break by Care's replacement Ben Youngs, who put a grubber kick into the corner rather than risk a pass, the Bath winger picking up and barging through Wesley Fofana.

From the restart, England again infringed, Machenaud making no mistake from the tee.

France made a raft of changes to the front five, temporarily giving them the upper hand at the scrum, although their line-out was creaking and gifted England vital possession.

Farrell calmed nerves with his third and fourth penalties to ensure England the Grand Slam, having contrived to botch four other occasions to nab the trophy since the Five Nations became Six in 2000.

--------------------------- Game preview ---------------------------

England will seek to confirm their remarkable transformation from World Cup flops to Six Nations Grand Slam winners when they take on France tonight.

Now coached by Australian Eddie Jones, who masterminded Japan's three victories at last year's World Cup (including one over the mighty South Africa), the English have seen off Scotland (15-9), Italy (40-9), Ireland (21-10) and Wales (25-21).

That string of four victories gave Jones a Six Nations title at the first time of asking, so ending England's run of four successive runners-up finishes under former coach Stuart Lancaster.

A victory at the Stade de France on Saturday, with the kick-off set for 2000 GMT, would go a step further by handing England a first Grand Slam since their World Cup-winning year of 2003, when Jones was in charge of losing finalists Australia.

"We've won the championship, but the job feels half done for us at the moment," said Jones, whose side has contrived to botch four other occasions to nab a Grand Slam since the Five Nations became Six in 2000.

"If we want to get better as a team, if we want to be the most dominant side in Europe, we've got to beat France."

Jones made two changes to his team, bringing in prop Mako Vunipola and scrum-half Danny Care for benched duo Joe Marler and Ben Youngs.

Marler's inclusion comes amid a furore after the Harlequins player escaped sanction for calling Wales' Samson Lee a "gypsy boy" last weekend, opening a debate over whether what the Welsh player dubbed on-field banter should in fact have been acted upon as racist abuse.

France's 29-18 defeat by Scotland in Edinburgh last weekend scuppered their title hopes, coach Guy Noves responding by calling up back-row forwards Loann Goujon and Bernard Le Roux into his starting side at the expense of Yacouba Camara and Wenceslas Lauret in a bid to beef up his pack.

But Noves insisted he had been right not to introduce wholesale changes to his side that opened the campaign with wins over Italy (23-21) and Ireland (10-9) before going down to Wales (19-10) and the Scots.

Despite accusing his team of making "stupid mistakes" against Scotland, Noves said he had been "stubborn".

"It's not the fact that we were beaten by Scotland that we're going to have a change of heart," the ex-Toulouse coach said.

"What concerns us is that we have a goal which is to advance in our rugby, that's what's important. On the pitch we're working on our game, but on the side we need to look at ourselves clinically and see what we can react to immediately."

Jones predicted that the French would come out with all guns firing at their home ground.

"The French are going to be doing their absolute utmost to make sure we don't win," he said.

"France's best 20 minutes are going to be their first, they have got to get into the game in that first 20 minutes.

"We've got to be good enough to cope with it, 100 percent. We've got to be able to meet their physicality and then move them around."

But ultimately, Jones was confident.

"I think we're the better team and we have to believe we're the better team," he said.

"If you go into Grand Slam games thinking you're not the better team you are going to get beaten and we have to think we are the better team and put it on the paddock.

"France away for a Grand Slam is a great test. The first 20 minutes is going to be a good physical test but it's a great mental test. It is a really good test and then we've got some bigger hurdles to jump going forwards."


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