Rugby-Improving England remember how to win the close ones


Sun, 27 Feb 11:37:00 2011

England proved they can win the tight games after Saturday's tense 17-9 Six Nations victory over reigning champions France.

Last season England lost narrowly to Ireland, drew with Scotland and went down 12-10 in Paris despite playing well and scoring the only try.

They were then well beaten by Australia in Perth in June but bounced back to beat the Wallabies 21-20 in Sydney in what is beginning to look like the pivotal game in their development under Martin Johnson.

At Twickenham on Saturday they again showed they had remembered the way to win a tight game as, after turning round at 9-9, they opened an eight-point lead early in the second half and held it to the end.

"It was a good win. We really had to fight and graft," Johnson said, having made it three out of three after wins over Wales and Italy.

"I quite enjoy that type of game - it's not always pretty, but that's test match rugby. Last year we lost to Ireland in a similar sort of game and it rips your guts out."

That must have been how France were feeling on Saturday, not least because it was Jonny Wilkinson, destroyer of their dreams on so many occasions, who drove in the final nail.

Wilkinson came off the bench and in typically nerveless style sent a 48-metre penalty straight through the posts with his first touch.

The score took him back in front of New Zealand's Dan Carter as the game's all-time leading scorer but more importantly for England it underlined their current depth of talent.

Wilkinson has dropped to second choice behind Toby Flood yet when he entered the fray on Sunday after 51 minutes when Flood injured an ankle he earned the biggest cheer of the day.

He duly delivered the vital three points but also a cameo performance with the sort of line breaks and one-handed off-loads everyone said he was incapable of making.

When the rest of the players had disappeared down the tunnel Wilkinson remained on the pitch for a further 20 minutes of kicking practice.

With a potential World Cup quarter-final between the old rivals looming in October it would have been a sight to freeze the blood of the many thousands of French fans who contributed to a terrific Twickenham atmosphere.

Wilkinson's boot played a major role when England beat France in the semi-finals of the 2003 and 2007 World Cups and with England having also knocked them out of the 1991 competition, Saturday's result was of major significance.

"I said before the game that I think the England side is better than us at the moment. They are the best team in the northern hemisphere," said France coach Marc Lievremont, who had won his previous eight Six Nations matches.

"They were fitter than us and it was very difficult to come back and score twice.

"Now they have won the path to the grand slam is wide open."

England, seeking their first title since 2003, are not allowing themselves to talk about a clean sweep but they will expect to beat Scotland at Twickenham on March 13 to set one up.

They finish off with a tough trip to Ireland on the tournament's final day, March 19, when France host Wales.


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