Off the pace, porous in defence and downright ordinary at times, England were rescued by a fizzing bench contribution that culminated in a first Test try from Worcester centre Ben Te’o nine minutes from time which rescued the game.
There is a case for the promotion of not only Te’o but James Haskell, Matt Mullan, Danny Care and Jamie George on the evidence of Twickenham, but Eddie Jones’s instinct is to stick with the status quo for the trip to the Principality Stadium. He knows his side dodged a bullet against the impressive French to set a new national record of 15 successive Test wins, but his logic is that England cannot play as badly again.
“This game was a long time coming and sometimes, when you’ve had two or three camps, there’s a bit of anxiety in the first game of a tournament because you want to get off to a good start,” said England’s playmaker George Ford.
“We spoke at half-time about needing more urgency and about firing a few shots ourselves, especially with ball in hand and getting more front-foot ball. There were glimpses in the second half of more tempo in our game but again we didn’t hold on to the ball well enough.
Eddie Jones will stick with the same team that started against France
George Ford said England never panicked when France took the lead
“The good thing was when France took the lead with 20 minutes to go there was no panic. The more you win the more confidence you get and the calmer you are in those situations.
“We found a way to win so it’s a good way to start the tournament for us but we need to get a lot better in all areas.”
Ford, whose club future should be sorted out this week with confirmation of a return to Leicester next season, was substituted in the second half with England struggling to come up with alternatives when their forwards were stopped in their tracks by the massive French pack. The back row was made to look particularly unbalanced. Of the starters, only Owen Farrell and Elliot Daly came out in credit.
Jones maintained his selection had been spot-on but blamed an “awful” performance, which he admitted he was struggling to fix mid-match, on their preparation. “We will start with the coaching staff first and work out what I did wrong,” he said.
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England’s hope – and it is a realistic one – is that a pack which missed the Vunipola brothers will get more change out of Wales next week.
Once on the front foot they are a different side, as was shown when Haskell injected some overdue thrust late on. The pity is that he is not fully match fit after his long injury lay-off – Jones reckons he has “28 minutes” in him for the Principality Stadium, where he was outstanding in England’s win two years ago.
For all the ropy nature of England’s opening game of the championship and Jones’s alarming historical research, Cardiff should not hold any fear for the majority of the England squad who have tasted victory there.
“I’ve only ever played there once. It was the start of the Six Nations, on a Friday night, and it was a brilliant atmosphere, absolutely brilliant,” said Ford. “We came out of the changing rooms that day, they turned all the lights off and we had a bit of a stand-off in the tunnel. It is a great place to play.
England's bench made a match-winning contribution against France
“When you look back, if someone asks where are the best places you’ve played, you would say the Millennium Stadium for the atmosphere and everything that comes with it. You are playing Wales, and Wales and England don’t particularly like each other, so it is exciting.
“There’s a bit of a special feeling about going away from home. We love playing at Twickenham but there is a challenge that lies ahead of us next week. We are playing a hugely emotional team and a talented team, who have thousands of people behind them in a brilliant stadium.
“Wales are a different beast with that crowd behind them so there is definitely a special feeling about going there and trying to get the performance and the result.”
England – Try: Te’o. Con: Farrell. Pens: Farrell 3, Daly.
France – Try: Slimani. Con: Lopez. Pens: Lopez 3.