'England defeat by France a tale of individual errors and confused tactics'

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Six Nations: France 24-17 England - highlights

How much can change in the space of 160 minutes.

Two matches ago England were producing arguably the single finest display in their history. World champions New Zealand were put to the sword; a World Cup appeared tantalisingly within reach.

And then reality intervened. First a thumping from South Africa, out-muscled, over-powered. Three months later, thousands of miles from Yokohama, the same story in a different shade. A blue tide rather than green and gold, another defeat that asks questions England are not yet capable of answering.

A seven-point margin of defeat against a France side who have habitually inhabited the bottom half of the Six Nations table in the past decade is a heavy burden to carry back across the Channel. The unpleasant truth for England is that without the late brilliance of Jonny May it could have looked uglier still.

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England are still the same side who took the All Blacks apart in Yokohama last October. They are also the same side who fell apart for 35 minutes against Scotland a year ago and stuttered for another critical 40 against Wales a few weeks earlier.

All teams will go through periods when their opposition take the ascendancy. The margins at the elite level and the rhythms of the game dictate that.

England's intractable problem in the past two years has been that they struggle to solve problems. When they are behind they too often stay behind. When they are in a hole they are too often incapable of dragging themselves out of it.

So it was on a rain-soaked Parisian afternoon when individual errors mirrored a first half of confused tactics and backward steps.

Only deep into the second half did England finally adjust their kicking game to the sodden conditions and look for territory rather than slippery fingers. Only with France out of sight did they start to gain parity in a physical battle that had been going only one way.

Coach Eddie Jones has brought a great deal to this England side. It was in this stadium four years ago that his players won a first Grand Slam in 13 years just a few months after a World Cup campaign as abject as the one just gone had been so promising.

Maybe there is nothing wrong in saying that you want your team to be the greatest in history. No-one aims for second best. After losing in a World Cup final you need a fresh vision to stop the backward looks and lingering regrets.

Yet in doing so publicly you place a target on your back and an easy motivation in the heart of your opposition. If you promise to dish out a brutal physicality you have to understand what response that may bring from rivals who will feel belittled.

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The Stade de France is never noisier than when France are putting England to the sword. Before kick-off, tricolors in the hands of every home supporter around this great bowl, the atmosphere was febrile and expectant. By the time Charles Ollivon slid over for his second try and France's third it was deafening.

It can fall silent and die too. You come to Paris and you stifle the opposition and you suck the air out of the stadium. Control the tempo. Play the odds. Wait for the discontent and the old ghosts to rise.

You do anything but let the noise and momentum and chaos build. It doesn't have to be pretty. It just needs to have shape, and purpose, and precision.

This is not the first time England have come to Paris with great expectations only to leave with sore heads. They have now won only one of their past four contests here. They have lost to less impressive France sides in seasons which offered as much promise.

Injury denied them their most effective ball-carrier in Billy Vunipola and cost them their next, Manu Tuilagi, within the first 15 minutes. George Furbank may have endured a difficult debut at full-back but he was only given the chance by Anthony Watson's late withdrawal.

But chastening defeats create difficult questions. Is Paris on the opening day of a Six Nations the optimum place to blood a callow if promising full-back? Can you hope to prosper against a pumped-up rival without a specialist number eight? Is repeatedly hitting first-up runners really the best idea when the defence opposite you has been happily swallowing them up all afternoon?

"It's like we forgot how to play rugby in the first half," said Jones afterwards.

"We were slow out of the blocks, we were sorry for ourselves and out of kilter, and we let the situation get to us."

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New France coach Fabien Galthie knows a little about World Cup hangovers. His last game as a player for his country was the semi-final defeat by England in the rain in Sydney 17 years ago. He was assistant coach as France fell apart against Wales in the quarter-finals in Tokyo last autumn.

His own vision is all long term too. This was a team picked with another game at this same stadium in mind, the World Cup final of 2023. Youth won this day but is being hardened up for greater challenges and stages yet.

He also has by his side the happiest Englishmen in the French capital on Sunday night.

Shaun Edwards, among many other achievements, created the parsimonious defence behind the most successful northern hemisphere team of the past 12 years. Just as he had an instant impact in Warren Gatland's first Six Nations campaign with Wales, so his imprint was all over this France defence and the win that was built upon it.

England 's coaching staff by the end of this tournament will include only a solitary Englishman, Simon Amor, who has been brought in from the leftfield of the national sevens set-up.

Edwards, for whatever reason, has never had the call, beyond a patronising offer years back of the second-string Saxons job. He is not the sort to complain, and Galthie is smart enough to recognise to play an advantage when he sees one.

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