6N: England topples France to redeem woeful title defense


LONDON — England redeemed a woeful Six Nations title defense by beating trophy favorite France 23-20 thanks to a late Maro Itoje try in an empty Twickenham on Saturday.

England was heading to a third defeat in four matches until the 76th minute. Replacement prop Will Stuart broke to the line and lock Itoje dived over from the ruck. Referee Andrew Brace decided no try, believing Itoje was held up by flanker Cameron Woki. But Brace asked Television Match Official Joy Neville to review.

Neville said Itoje brushed the grass with the ball and it was a try.

Itoje smiled among his congratulating teammates, a hero again after coming into the game heavily criticized for being the poster boy of the indiscipline that has undone England’s campaign.

France’s Grand Slam bid was over, but it was still in title contention with home matches remaining against title rivals Wales, which is unbeaten, and Scotland, which has one loss. But Wales can win the championship next weekend in Paris with a draw.

Doubts about France’s form after a month out of action were dispelled within 80 seconds by a try to star scrumhalf Antoine Dupont, one of 12 players infected in a coronavirus outbreak that caused the game scheduled against Scotland to be postponed.

But England’s response was to finally come out of its shell with its best performance since the 2019 Rugby World Cup semifinal win over New Zealand. It attacked, played at pace, and kept its composure to not concede a penalty until the 24th minute.

Winger Anthony Watson marked his 50th cap with his 22nd test try and England led 13-7 after a couple of Owen Farrell penalties.

But France retook the lead with a brilliant first-phase try to wing Damian Penaud to finish a luminous first half 17-13 ahead.

The second half slowed down as France started to look like it hadn’t played in four weeks and the stubborn English conceded little. An exchange of penalties to the 54th minute maintained the tension as France looked set to win at Twickenham for the first time since 2005.

But England, again, had the last say.

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