England 10-53 France
It was England’s record defeat in the 140 years of the Six Nations Championship in all its guises, and their worst in any home match.
The staggering scoreline confirmed England had been knocking about in the second division of this year’s Six Nations up to now – losing to Scotland by six points here on weekend one, then beating Italy and Wales, the teams currently at the foot of the table.
On this day, the competition suddenly got real, and fearsomely so – and the bad news for England is they go to Ireland, the team above the French in the rankings, to finish it off next week.
Any dreams Marcus Smith had of skipping and surging to a vindication as England’s fly-half were shattered by an embarrassing lack of cohesion and quality throughout the team.
Smith’s misery was summed up in a horribly soft try which, incredibly, put the French 41 points to 10 ahead just before the hour mark.
Smith slithered and was carried backwards over his goalline as he attempted to clear up yet another French raid into the England 22 in the incessant rain, but the white jerseys round him somehow allowed the clever flanker Charles Ollivon to poach a spectacular score by pushing a hand through the bodies.
Smith’s return to the starting line-up after two matches on the bench, and with the captain Owen Farrell relegated as a result, had been a big talking point.
But Smith was fighting to catch his breath amid a French tide from an early stage.
England mistakes racked up quickly, and the French, who had shown their class with a national record 14 wins in a row before they lost to the Irish last month, were showing the recent doubts about their staying power were misplaced.
Smith put a penalty to touch but Lewis Ludlam fumbled the line-out catch. Smith then kicked England’s first points as a temporary brake on France’s 17-0 lead but there was an immediate holding-on offence by Alex Dombrandt to allow Thomas Ramos to restore the advantage.
An Ollie Chessum chargedown gave England turnover ball but they moved it slowly and Henry Slade chose to switch inside when he might have probed the edge.
Next, Smith gave a glimpse of his scrambling talent to haul England across the gainline a minute before half-time, but, revealingly, the pass flung out by Jack van Poortvliet betrayed a lack of feel for a counter attack – you could not tell who the ball was aimed it, and Dombrandt dropped it.
Those of us here in the stadium heard a weird noise from the crowd, a kind of groan crossed with a boo.
On TV, Jonny Wilkinson told viewers at half-time, England had not earned the right to play.
The Dombrandt fumble gave France a scrum from which they scored too easily with Greg Alldritt’s charge and inside pass to Ollivon.
With earlier tries by Ramos and Thibaud Flament, France’s 27-3 lead was the most first-half points England had conceded at home in the Six Nations.
Wilkinson, a past master of a fly-half, must have empathised with Smith’s position, as France bossed the breakdown and teased the home team with their accurate kicking.
Smith’s bouncy hair-do was flattened by the downpour but the 24-year-old Harlequin did not throw the towel in.
Five minutes into the second half, he sent a cross-kick to Max Malins, and the diving wing was unlucky not repeat the smart finish he had made here versus the Scots.
Farrell was immediately sent on for Slade to restore the much talked about but very little praised 10-12 combo with Smith.
Alex Mitchell was on for Van Poortvliet, too, speeding away from a ruck to send Freddie Steward careering over for England’s first try, converted by Smith: 27-10 to France.
Smith often dazzles while playing catch-up for his club, but there he has the comfort of a familiar game plan constructed over a number of years, in a league in which tries come easy.
Head coach Borthwick, appointed in succession to the sacked Eddie Jones in December, has picked in-form individuals with big reputations but his assertion that rival teams are three years ahead in their planning was made to look optimistic.
Flament’s second try from a box-kick and a tip back by fly-half Romain Ntamack was followed by Smith’s slippery moment at the hand of Ollivon.
Damian Penaud’s tries in the 72nd and 75th minutes had everyone thumbing the record books for England disasters.
Only the 76-0 tour loss in Australia participated in by the young Wilkinson, in 1998, and a 58-10 reverse in South Africa in 2007 were bigger hammerings in terms of the points margin – and no wonder “Allez les Bleus” was ringing round the stands at the end.