The only team with any bite in “Le Crunch” was France.
On one of the darkest days in English rugby history, France put on a clinic by running in seven tries in a record 53-10 Six Nations humiliation of its cross-channel rival at Twickenham.
The win kept alive Les Tricolores’ chances of retaining the title heading into the final round, but this was about much more than that.
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England has never conceded so many points in a home Test match, or in the tournament’s 140 year history.
It was the team’s third heaviest defeat ever, only surpassed by a 76-0 loss for a weakened touring lineup in Australia in 1998 and a 58-10 beating by South Africa in Bloemfontein in 2007.
It was comfortably France’s highest score and largest margin of victory in 110 meetings with England — the previous bests were in 1972 — and a stark illustration of the gulf in quality that has formed between traditional northern hemisphere powerhouses six months out from the Rugby World Cup.
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“We got exposed today,” said England coach Steve Borthwick, who replaced Eddie Jones in December and might already be out of his depth.
“I thought we would get a measure of where we are at — there is a big gap between us and the top teams in the world.
“We understand where we are and what we have to do.”
Les Tricolores needed a bonus point win to guarantee taking their title defence to round five and two tries apiece from winger Damian Penaud, excellent lock Thibaud Flament and flanker Charles Ollivon helped them achieve it in stunning fashion, via a mixture of French flair and taking advantage of a mistake-riddled home team.
While England is effectively out of the running for the championship after a second defeat in four games, France — with three wins from four — moved into second place behind unbeaten Ireland only on points difference.
The Irish will look to extend their 100 per cent record with a win over Scotland at Murrayfield on Monday (AEDT).
“It was a very special game for us,” Flament said.
“We are in a good place, we know this tournament can be won on the last game.”
From the moment Flament broke England’s flimsy defensive line in his own half to help set up a second minute try by Thomas Ramos, the French looked a class apart.
They then put on a show, embarrassing the hosts as Penaud’s brace of tries down the right wing in the final 10 minutes took France past a half century of points and sparked jeers from some home fans, many of whom were heading for the exits.
In between, Flament and Ollivon crashed over for tries before halftime — when the score was 27-3 — and added another each in the second half after early fire from England led to its only try, from fullback Freddie Steward.
Any thoughts of an English comeback from 27-10 down were obliterated by a four try burst by Les Tricolores in 18 minutes, starting with Flament running onto flyhalf Romain Ntamack’s pat down and over the line from 10 metres out to score in the 57th minute.
Ollivon’s second try was somewhat farcical after England flyhalf Marcus Smith lost possession of the ball in his attempt to get back over his own tryline after retrieving a kick.
With the ball loose at the bottom of a ruck, Ollivon reached over a mass of bodies and placed two hands on it for a try that needed the say-so of the TMO.
It just about summed up a miserable day for England.
“If I had the answers, I would be somewhere else earning millions,” said Ellis Genge, who captained England after Owen Farrell dropped to the bench for the game.
“It is a bit of a mystery at the moment.”
Meanwhile, Italy is headed for another last placed finish in the Six Nations, sinking to a 29-17 defeat to Wales in a match billed as a wooden spoon decider.
That’s a fourth straight loss in this championship for Italy, which needs to win in Scotland next weekend in the final round to stand a chance of avoiding finishing bottom of the standings.
The likelihood is, however, the Italians will be last for an eighth straight year in the Six Nations and the 18th time in 24 editions since joining the northern hemisphere tournament in 2000.
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