Jonny May’s sublime first-half hat-trick sent England top of the Guinness Six Nations table as France were blown away by a kicking masterclass at Twickenham.
May was the main beneficiary, and his finish for the second try in particular was superb, but each of England’s four first-half tries was predicated on an aerial bombardment exploiting the vast spaces behind the French defence.
Les Bleus’ reworked back-three of Yoann Huget, Damian Penaud and Gael Fickou had no answer to the constant grubber kicks into space and pinpoint up-and-unders from their hosts, although Huget and Penaud did combine for a neat try late in the first half.
Trailing 30-8 at half-time, the visitors’ chances of ending a Championship winless streak at Twickenham stretching back to 2005 were slim and those were obliterated by a penalty try early in the second period before Owen Farrell got the sixth to round out a 44-8 triumph.
After a brilliant opening half against Wales in Round One, it’s been 120 minutes of rugby to forget for France since but England built on their impressive win over Ireland a week ago and appear to be going from strength to strength.
England have become experts at scoring early tries in recent times – against the likes of Australia, New Zealand and Japan in the Autumn Internationals, as well as in their Round One victory in Dublin last weekend – and continued that handy habit at Twickenham.
French skipper Guilhem Guirado, normally so assured in possession, knocked on in midfield and the hosts brutally took advantage – Elliot Daly immediately scything through two tackles, grubber kicking through and May outpacing Penaud on the left wing to dot down inside three minutes for the second week in a row.
Farrell’s touchline conversion drifted just wide but the fly-half slotted two simple penalties either side of a Morgan Parra three-pointer to put England in control.
In attack, Les Bleus were beginning to show some invention – Penaud making metres with every run and a Fickou dink over the top forcing Manu Tuilagi to concede a lineout in his own 22.
But the acres of space behind France’s back three continued to cost them dearly as May completed a deserved hat-trick inside half an hour.
Firstly, England earned attacking territory with another kick through and after almost barrelling over with the forwards, Farrell switched the direction of play by running left of the breakdown, flighted a long pass out to May and he expertly jinked past Penaud to dive over.
The in-form winger then profited when a Henry Slade up-and-under was spilled by Parra, Chris Ashton gathered and grubbered in behind and he had the simple task of getting over the line.
Penaud did get the try his enterprising darts merited five minutes before half-time as Huget broke a tackle, weaved through the defence, drew the final man and slipped his back-three compatriot in for a score in the right corner.
That French joy was short-lived however as England sealed a bonus point on the stroke of half-time – yet another kick in behind, this time from Ben Youngs, saw Ashton get within metres of the line before the ball was swung wide for Slade to crash over and Farrell’s extras gave the hosts a remarkable 30-8 advantage at the break.
FINISHING THE JOB
France were on the wrong end of the biggest half-time deficit being successfully overturned in Championship history in Round One – as Wales came from 16 points down in Paris – but any outside chance of turning the tables in London was extinguished on 50 minutes.
Slade intercepted a Camille Lopez pass just inside his own half, raced through and kicked ahead for Ashton to chase, with Fickou tackling the winger before he collected the ball forcing Nigel Owens – refereeing his record 20th Championship match – to award a penalty try.
Fickou was also sin-binned for the offence and during his spell on the sidelines, England got a very familiar-looking sixth try.
Another boot through saw Antoine Dupont unable to dot down in his own in-goal area under pressure from May and Farrell capitalised to dive on the ball, his conversion making it 44-8.
With the result decided, the game petered out slightly in the final quarter but as Farrell booted the ball into the stands to end the game, England didn’t care a jot as they completed back-to-back impressive victories.
WHAT THEY SAID
Guinness Man of the Match Jonny May said: “The challenge was trying to raise the bar after good team performance last week but we came out and played really good rugby at times.
“I was just focused on doing my job but everybody is working hard and it’s really paying off. We’ve learned a lot in the last 12 months or so and worked incredibly hard.
“Scoring tries for your country is awesome, especially at Twickenham, so I’m really grateful and feel lucky.”
France coach Jacques Brunel said: “It was obviously very disappointing, especially the first half. The kicking game created pressure that we were not able to overcome.
“The same things happened throughout the game. We found ourselves on the line without anyone in behind and we were punished.”
Jonny May’s hat-trick was just reward for his relentless chasing and he now has four tries through two rounds of the 2019 Guinness Six Nations – only three short of Jacob Stockdale’s Championship record set last year.
The aerial bombardment was both constant and precise but May always knew exactly where to dart through and his second try in particular – when he beat Damian Penaud one on one out wide – was particularly impressive.
He was unlucky not to be named Guinness Man of the Match last week after a superb display but deservedly got the nod this time around.
It’s hard to look past May’s try inside three minutes, which really set the tone for what was to come.
England’s penchant for early scores is becoming an incredibly welcome habit, putting the opposition on the back foot from the off, and they are yet to surrender their third-minute in the first two rounds of this year’s Guinness Six Nations.
It was the first indication that the hosts would exploit the gaps in behind the French defence, as Elliot Daly stabbed through and May outraced Penaud to touch down, while also ruthlessly taking advantage of an error from Les Bleus – Guilhem Guirado’s knock-on.