If there was a nagging feeling that England’s previous two wins over Italy and Wales had papered over some cracks in this rebuild under Steve Borthwick, then the most humiliating day in Twickenham history ripped them open and exposed the embarrassing core underneath.
Never before, in 152 years of playing international rugby, had an England team suffered a home defeat this heavy. France obliterated their hosts 53-10 – surpassing the 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 out from 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 head to Dublin next week to round off their campaign. Get your calculators at the ready – based on this performance, that 76-0 defeat to Australia on the ‘tour from hell’ in 1998 might be under threat.
England were shambolic, as their opponents dominated every facet of the game and scored seemingly at will. Any credit Borthwick had built up as an ex-England captain, with an impressive coaching CV early in his career and as the ideal, straightforward man to follow the drama of the unpopular Eddie Jones era has likely been extinguished. He will need to find answers, and fast, because another display like this and the knives will soon be out.
The grey, dreary skies reflected England’s performance and, were this an English GCSE essay, the opportunity to say the rain that lashed down at Twickenham was a form of pathetic fallacy that mirrored England’s mood would be too good to turn down. Certainly, 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 with any credit from the opening stanza, as a couple of booming kicks helped clear early pressure, and the try he scored in the second half after a powerful carry was no more than his performance deserved. However, as if to sum up the futility of England’s day, even he was outjumped by Romain Ntamack in the build-up to another France try later in the second 40.
While the pre-match talk was over Borthwick’s decision to start Marcus Smith at fly half instead of Owen Farrell, the England coach is unlikely to be any closer to knowing whether this is the optimal set-up moving forward. The Harlequins playmaker showed the flashes of athleticism we’ve come to expect, with a couple of half-breaks and shimmies past French defenders offering tantalising glimpses of what his explosive skillset could provide in anything resembling a functioning attack.
Instead, England were simply unable to get out of their own way as the limpest of first-half performances ensured the game was over as a contest by the 40-minute mark. It wouldn’t have mattered whether Smith, Farrell or a prime Jonny Wilkinson was in the No 10 jersey, no one could have marshalled this shambolic version of England to a winning display.
The English pack were consistently dominated from minute one. Take nothing away from the French back row of Francois Cros, Charles Ollivon and Gregory Alldritt, who were all superb, but they faced minimal resistance as the home forwards folded.
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 draw the final defender and send Thomas Ramos for a simple run-in.
The second and third scores saw them all combine as, firstly – following Antoine Dupont’s exquisite 50:22 box kick that gave his side an attacking lineout – the pack mauled their way forward and allowed Flament to burrow over. Then, on the stroke of half-time, Les Bleus’ scrum splintered England’s front row, Alldritt had an acre of room down the blindside and he offloaded to Ollivon for the try. The 27-3 deficit England faced at the break was their largest in the 117-year history of this fixture. If England hoped that would be the nadir, they were sorely mistaken.
Alldritt and Cros in particular made mincemeat of the opposition at the breakdown, winning ruck penalty after ruck penalty as they got over the top of the ball much quicker than their English counterparts.
With a pack moving backwards, England had little quality ball but when they did, the backs invariably squandered it. As the rain poured and conditions became slippery, knock-ons were a depressingly regular sight. Anthony Watson spilled a high ball just outside his own 22, Jack van Poortvliet fumbled forwards at the breakdown on multiple occasions and a gifted 22 entry after a blocked kick was immediately knocked on.
Van Poortvliet – asked to play the role that Danny Care does for Harlequins in order to unlock Smith’s full potential – continued his sub-par Six Nations. A sliced box kick straight up in the air on 15 minutes deep in his own half after he demanded players join the ruck to form the protective caterpillar summed up the lack of invention and error-strewn nature of his display.
He was hooked by Borthwick just five minutes into the second half and in a cruel twist of fate, his replacement Alex Mitchell immediately popped the ball perfectly to a marauding Steward for England’s only try. The lone bright spot on the darkest of days. His old club coach Borthwick rightly has faith in the talented young No 9 but Van Poortvliet’s recent performances suggest Mitchell will likely be starting the finale against Ireland.
Not that Steward’s score signalled any sort of turnaround. Instead, Flament went over for his second try, Ollivon smartly grounded the ball after England were driven back over their own line and Damian Penaud twice marauded clear down the right through questionable tackling to take the score above 50 and complete the humiliation.
The disarray that England found themselves in was neatly summed up when, with no fit backs left, back-up hooker Jack Walker was forced to come on for centre Ollie Lawrence midway through the second half. No 8 Alex Dombrandt shifted into the back-line, playing as a sort of winger. He was the man who missed a tackle on Penaud for the French flyer’s first score but if it’s a coach’s job to put his players in a position to succeed, then Dombrandt can rightly be frustrated with Borthwick. Something has gone badly wrong when he’s left one on one out wide with one of the most prolific wingers in world rugby.
It felt almost unfair that this was Ellis Genge’s debut as captain - a permanent black mark on his international career that, truthfully, wasn’t really his fault. There was little he could do to stop the tidal wave of embarrassment and his management of referee Ben O’Keefe was generally good. Even the most nit-picky of critics who say England should have kicked the points when 10-0 down early on, rather than going to the corner and spurning the chance, have to admit it was irrelevant in the final reckoning.
Where England go from here - who knows? Well, the literal answer is to Dublin to face the unstoppable force of the No 1 team in the world in seven days’ time but much bigger philosophical questions loom and it’s hard to have faith that they have the answers.