France denied first Twickenham win since 2007 after late Maro Itoje try in Six Nations; tries from Antoine Dupont and Damian Penaud, plus 10 points from the boot of Matthieu Jalibert, looked to have got France over the line; Anthony Watson also scored a try for England
By Michael Cantillon at Twickenham
A Maro Itoje try with just three minutes remaining denied France a first Twickenham victory for 14 years, and also ended Les Bleus’ Grand Slam dreams as England triumphed 23-20.
In a fabulous spectacle of attacking rugby, with France mesmeric with ball in hand and England much improved on their displays in the Championship so far, the visitors looked to have done enough after tries from Antoine Dupont and Damian Penaud.
France’s outstanding 22-year-old out-half Matthieu Jalibert also kicked two penalties and two conversions, but Fabien Galthie’s charges would fall just short.
In addition to Itoje’s late effort, Anthony Watson notched a try for England, while skipper Owen Farrell kicked flawlessly from the tee, registering three penalties and two conversions.
At four points behind with just five minutes remaining, Farrell’s decision to kick to the corner instead of reducing the deficit to a single point also proved inspired, as England clinched a superb and dramatic victory.
Dominating the ball almost from the first whistle, France made an explosive start as centres Gael Fickou and Virimi Vakatawa produced enterprising carries, before wing Teddy Thomas chipped over Max Malins for the chasing Dupont to gather at the second attempt and dive over less than two minutes in.
England responded to the set-back well with their own sustained period of play, putting phases together deep within the France half, but were just denied a try when flanker Mark Wilson was held up.
From the consequent five-metre attacking scrum, staunch French defence kept England out again, before Malins through a forward pass while trying to find Watson down the right.
A couple of quickly taken France line-outs meant they never truly cleared the danger, however, and in the 10th minute Watson would get over in the corner after a charging Henry Slade run had stretched and disjointed Les Bleus’ line.
Farrell dispatched the difficult conversion out wide brilliantly to level the Test, while the England skipper soon edged the home side in front with a penalty from close range after France’s Paul Willemse was penalised for his breakdown entry.
France fell foul of referee Andrew Brace again soon after, with lock Romain Taofifenua penalised for going off feet, allowing Farrell to strike over again from the tee for a lead of 13-7.
Thereafter, Wilson was almost in for a second England try after gathering a Dupont kick which had been charged down by Tom Curry, but the France nine made up for his error by forcing a Ben Youngs knock on – the England half-back caught napping in possession.
France No 10 Jalibert was next to come close to a try when he just failed to ground a bouncing ball in-goal after a clever Dupont chip, but the visitors had been playing on penalty advantage anyway, allowing Jalibert to reduce the deficit to three points via the boot.
On 32 minutes, France would get their second try, as Penaud scored in the corner after a stunning set-piece move.
A deep line-out throw was collected by centre Fickou, who threw a reverse pass for Dupont to release Jalibert into space. From there, the out-half sprinted forward before delivering a perfect long left-hand pass for Penaud to touch down.
Jalibert converted from the touchline to move France 17-13 ahead – and only a vital Curry breakdown steal saw England avoid further damage before half-time after more scintillating French attacking.
Into the second period, England started strongly with Billy Vunipola breaking into the 22 and quick ball stressing France. Centre Vakatawa produced a priceless breakdown penalty five metres from his own line to clear the danger though.
A penalty against Itoje for failing to roll away allowed France to increase their lead to seven points when Jalibert split the posts from straight in front.
England’s first points of the second half arrived in the 54th minute, when Farrell struck a penalty over after France skipper Charles Ollivon played the arm of Charlie Ewels at a line-out.
Into the final quarter, a penalty against England replacement Ben Earl for side entry allowed France back into the red zone but their attempts to kill the contest off were halted when Vakatawa knocked on.
A scrum penalty saw England force their way down to the other hand, and though Eddie Jones’ side were playing at great pace – and carrying with huge ferocity – the France defence was just as impressive, stemming English efforts repeatedly.
Just as Les Bleus seemed to be edging towards victory, however, a breakdown penalty in midfield would prove fatal.
With the penalty eminently kickable and five minutes left on the clock, Farrell took the brave decision of kicking to the corner instead of reducing the game to a single point, after which Itoje sprung over for the critical try of the Test.
Wing Thomas appeared to have an arm under the ball, but on review with TMO Joy Neville, the tip of the ball was decreed to have touched the grass before returning up.
The defeat ends France’s chance of a first Grand Slam since 2010 and puts Wales firmly in the frame for the title after their bonus-point win in Rome earlier on Saturday.