Jalibert and Dupont dazzle in defeat to show France are here to stay | Robert Kitson
England have not played this well for 17 months and still it took them until the closing minutes to apply the coup de grâce. What does that say about the visitors who, despite having their grand slam dream extinguished, look destined to be serious contenders by the time the 2023 World Cup arrives? The English may have won on this occasion but this is just the start of a potentially glorious rivalry.
What a spectacle it was, full of champagne moments and lacking only a mesmerised live audience to witness it. While France have still not won a Six Nations game in London since 2005 they have already won a multitude of new friends. At this rate they could develop into the most endearing French ensemble cast since the last series of Call My Agent. For Gabriel, Camille and Hervé read Antoine, Matthieu and Virimi.
Warren Gatland, watching from the stands, must certainly have wished he could pick a few of the boys in blue for a summer Lions tour. The uber-talented Matthieu Jalibert has enviable time to spare at 10, Julian Marchand is a formidably strong, mobile modern hooker and then there is Antoine Dupont, the light-middleweight setting new standards at scrum-half.
The game’s opening try inside 65 seconds was the latest prime example of Dupont’s unerring ability to be in the right place at the right time, the ever-alert No 9 following up Teddy Thomas’s neat chip to juggle and score. It did more than simply set a tone: instantly England knew that nothing less than their best would be enough.
France’s second try was even better, with Jalibert this time the provider. If a long throw right over the top of the lineout was straight out of Scotland’s playbook, the rest was down to Gallic genius, Jalibert floating a lovely ball out to an unmarked Damian Penaud on the right wing. Ooh la la. Over went the tricky conversion, too, as if to underline what a complete box of tricks the 22-year-old from Bordeaux possesses.
Off the field he is apparently a jovial young man but he is also a keen student of the game. As his former Bordeaux head coach Rory Teague outlined in the Guardian before the game, there is no disputing either his rare talent or his determination to maximise it.
“Over time there is no doubt that Matthieu will develop into a very astute playmaker who can lead a team,” confirmed Teague, “He watches a lot of rugby and will be looking at the world’s best players and how they’ve succeeded. He’s interested in how other countries and cultures do things. He’s just a great kid: a pleasure to be around but with the ability to roll his sleeves up and rip in when needed.”
He also has the priceless ability to lift neutrals from their seats, as underlined by the delicious double sidestep that extricated him from a potentially tight spot in his own half not long before the interval. England had been piecing together some delightful stuff of their own but Jalibert, even with the pressure ramped up, seemed to be operating on a different plane.
The crucial question, though, was whether Les Bleus could cope with the inevitable last quarter English barrage. The visitors are still a young team, with 14 of their starting XV possessing fewer caps than their opposite numbers. Top level games are not simply won on flights of fancy or oval-ball designer chic. Against opponents determined to banish the pent-up frustrations of their opening three games, it was never going to be a languid stroll to the finish line.
Credit, either way, must clearly go to England for the thrilling way they clawed their way back. As in the Autumn Nations Cup final in December, though, there was barely a fag paper between the sides at the final whistle.
The odds are now against a Gallic title this month, unless they can muster bonus point home wins against Wales and Scotland, but France’s rugby future remains encouragingly bright.