By Mitch Phillips
LONDON (Reuters) - A late Maro Itoje try secured England a 23-20 victory over France in a sparkling Six Nations game full of high-speed, enterprising rugby at Twickenham on Saturday to leave the championship wide open but with Wales in pole position.
England were trailing by four points with four minutes left when Itoje stretched over from a maul and was awarded the try by the TMO after the referee initially ruled that it had been held up. Owen Farrell nailed the difficult conversion and England held out.
It was a dramatic end to a superb match, particularly in the first half, as France led 17-13 at the break with tries by Antoine Dupont and, a brilliant one, Damian Penaud, with Anthony Watson replying for England.
The second half was a tighter affair but just as France seemed set for their first championship win at Twickenham since 2005, the defending champions found a way over.
The result was ideal for Wales, who top the standings on 19 points after their demolition of Italy in Rome earlier and will be crowned champions with a Grand Slam should they triumph in Paris next week.
With a 24-points difference advantage, they could easily still win the title with a defeat as France are likely to need bonus point victories in that game and in their rearranged match against Scotland to have a shot at their first title since 2010.
France and England have 10 points. Ireland, who visit Scotland on Sunday, have seven, with the Scots on five.
"We thought France would come out hard early," said England coach Eddie Jones. "They haven't had a game for a while and they were fresh. We had to be with them at halftime - that was our big job. We thought we would get them in the second half and we did."
The game began at 90mph and barely paused for breath – a wonderful antidote to much of the turgid action of last year and error-strewn opening weeks of the Six Nations.
France were on the board with just over a minute gone as they kept the ball alive sevens-style before Teddy Thomas chipped a kick through that Dupont reached first.
England hit back strongly, also playing adventurous, exciting rugby that ended with Watson marking his 50th cap with his fourth try of the championship after 10 minutes.
They continued to play at a pace not seen since the World Cup, earning two Farrell penalties while also addressing their own indiscipline, not giving away a penalty until a 25th minute scrum offence.
France, however, were undaunted and continued to play the sort of high-paced adventurous rugby that has got their public so excited and they turned that into points with a try that would have thrilled the crowd, had there been one.
Throwing a lineout deep, the ball spun through the hands of Dupont and Gael Fickou to Matthieu Jalibert, who delayed his pass to wrong-foot the England defence and send Damian Penaud over in the corner.
Jalibert converted to give France a 17-13 lead after one of the best halves Twickenham has seen for years.
The game settled into a more familiar tactical battle after the break with a penalty apiece keeping it a four-point game heading into the final quarter.
France’s defence was superb as England cranked up the pressure. However, it finally cracked as Ford drilled a touchfinding penalty within 10 metres and, Itoje, the penalty villain in defeat by Wales two weeks ago, stuck out a telescopic arm and got enough of the grass on the ball for the TMO to rule it a try despite Thomas's heroic effort to hold it up.
"In the second half we lost control of the game, especially at the end. We held our ground until Itoje scored his try," said France coach Fabien Galthie.
"We did not spend enough time in their half after the break. They played it well (on Itoje's try). We couldn't flip him over. We had a great game but it was not enough."
(Reporting by Mitch Phillips, editing by Christian Radnedge)