By Mitch Phillips
LONDON (Reuters) - The attacking green shoots of recovery England showed in defeat by Wales burst into full bloom on Saturday as they stood toe to toe with France in a breathtaking first half of sevens-style rugby that produced some wonderful tries.
But it was a deadly-accurate kick for touch and good old-fashioned maul that finally dragged them over the line in their 23-20 Six Nations victory.
Finding the balance between those two approaches will always be the major challenge faced by coach Eddie Jones but it is a lot easier to keep working on it on the back of important victories.
The first half featured some of the most exhilarating play seen at Twickenham for many years as both teams eschewed the territorial kicking game that has ruled the roost for the last 18 months.
France had the best of it, but only just, and when the game settled down after the break it was England who were mostly in the ascendancy and who snatched the victory with Maro Itoje’s maul try after George Ford's wonderful kick for touch.
"We've felt since the autumn we have to change our game a bit because the laws are moving to make the game faster," Jones said.
"Our plan is to go to the 2023 World Cup as a good set-piece team and a team that can move. We started that development at the start of the Six Nations and slowly we're getting better at the balance of passing, running and kicking.
"Rugby's always been about being smart and I think in the second half I think we got that combination right. The only time we didn't was in last 10 minutes of the first half when we got a bit seduced by the looseness of the game."
'A GOOD RACE'
Coming into Saturday's game England had made eight offloads in their three games – fewer than any other team – but on Saturday they notched up 10, four more than France, who were on fire in the early stages.
"We thought France would come out pretty strong at the start, they've had a long period to prepare," Jones said of the visitors' second-minute try by Antoine Dupont. "But the players responded really well and kept their cool.
"France have been described as the best team in the world. We've said we're going to be racing them into the World Cup – we're both developing and it's going to be a good race and we got a bit ahead of them today."
Jones had particular praise for captain Owen Farrell and Itoje, who was in the firing line after giving away five penalties in the Wales defeat. "They particularly stood out today in way they led the team, played at their best then showed a lot of composure dealing with difficult periods," he said of the Saracens duo.
Having been on the wrong side of two contentious refereeing decisions against Wales and seen his captain lambasted for how he spoke to the officials, Jones said he was surprised to see referee Andrew Brace overturn a decision in the visitors' favour in the last few minutes as France pushed for a winning score.
"That was a new one today - the captain's challenge - I must have missed the memo," he said. "That decision got overturned - I didn't know you could do that in a game of rugby. I’ve been involved or a little bit of time but I’ve never seen that before."
Jones might not have been smiling about it if the incident had led to a match-winning French try.
However, he was not about to let it spoil his day as he turned his attention to the team’s final game in Dublin next Saturday, saying: "We’re so disappointed we can’t defend our trophy but want to make sure we finish with a good feeling about the team."
(Reporting by Mitch Phillips, editing by Christian Radnedge)