France stun England with late Fickou try

France players celebrate after defeating England in their Six Nations rugby union match at the Stade de France in Saint-Denis, near Paris, February 1, 2014. (REUTERS)

France snatched a thrilling 26-24 Six Nations victory over England on Saturday thanks to a late converted try by Gael Fickou at the Stade de France.

Replacement Fickou broke free on the left wing to cross the line with three minutes left, denying England a famous comeback victory after they had battled back superbly from a 13-point deficit.

France, desperate to erase memories of last year's championship when they managed only one victory, stunned England when winger Yoann Huget touched down for the first try after 30 seconds.

Huget increased the French advantage with a second try 17 minutes later before three points from Owen Farrell's boot and a Mike Brown try five minutes before halftime gave England hope.

The rampaging Billy Vunipola continued to cut through the French defence early in the second half and England deservedly nosed ahead when he set up debutant centre Luther Burrell for the visitors' second try.

Danny Care's drop goal made it 21-16 before a Maxime Machenaud penalty and one from Alex Goode left England five points ahead.

But France were not done and the late replacements paid off when hooker Dimitri Szarzewski timed his pass to perfection to allow Fickou to cross and Machenaud kicked the winning conversion.

"We were the first and the last to shoot but we suffered physically in the second half, we missed a lot of tackles," France coach Philippe Saint-Andre told reporters.

"Our will was not to give up for 80 minutes.

"They targeted our halves in the second half, they managed great passing because they're good in the one-on-one.

"There's a lot of work to do still but what we'll have to remember is the victory, the smiles on the players' face after the game. It's a great sign for the season 2014."

France made a perfect start, moving the ball right to debutant flyhalf Jules Plisson whose low kick was grabbed by Huget for the opening try.

England shrugged off their disastrous start to pile the pressure on and were rewarded with a Farrell penalty.

ATTACKING INTENT

Both sides showed attacking intent, England's Vunipola, in particular, asking questions of the opposition defence, but after scrumhalf Jean-Marc Doussain had added three points for France, they increased the lead with Huget's second try in the 17th minute following indecisive English defence.

Doussain added a penalty following a collapsed scrum and the hosts looked on course for victory with a 13-point lead and domination in the scrums.

England clawed their way back into the match by dominating possession and came close to scoring several times.

They finally broke through the French defence after a quick break from scrumhalf Care and good work from Vunipola set up Brown for his first international try five minutes before halftime.

Farrell kicked a penalty and more powerful England play saw Burrell rewarded for supporting the rampaging Vunipola, the subsequent conversion handing the visitors the lead for the first time early in the second half.

England continued to press and extended their lead through Care's drop goal before Machenaud and Goode traded penalties.

France appeared out on their feet but they mustered one last charge as the clock ticked down to set Fickou free to level the scores at 24-24.

Scrumhalf Machenaud easily converted from in front of the posts, sending his team and most of the crowd into raptures at the final whistle.

"It's disappointing to have fought back into the game from being 16-3 down to lose, very disappointing," England coach Stuart Lancaster said.

"But I'm very proud of the efforts and skills our players put in today, it was the first time for a lot of players coming here today and I'm very proud.

"It was a great performance in lots of ways.

"Once we move forward from the initial disappointment, we'll take out the positives.

"Everything matters at this level, the area we need work on is deal with those details right."

WALES WIN OPENER

Holders Wales got their bid for an historic hat-trick of Six Nations titles off to a nervy start when they squeezed past a dogged Italy 23-15 in the opening match on Saturday.

First-half tries by Alex Cuthbert and Scott Williams gave the hosts a handy 17-3 lead at the break.

Michele Campagnaro, 20, lifted Italy's hopes of snapping a 15-match away losing streak in the championship with two tries to make the deficit five points with 10 minutes remaining.
 
Leigh Halfpenny's third penalty then gave Wales some breathing space as they made sure there was no repeat of the opening-day defeat by Ireland in 2013.

Wales, looking to become the first team to win three consecutive Six Nations titles outright, will be satisfied with the victory but will want an improved effort in the scrum as they eye tougher challenges in the coming weeks.

"I thought we were positive in terms of our attacking play but Italy were dogged and competed pretty hard all game," Wales coach Warren Gatland told the BBC.

"Defensively I thought our structure was pretty good. Italy made it tough for us.

"I think in the past when we have come under pressure like that we might not have had the composure to finish it off but we did today. We're champions and every team is going to come at us and make it tough."

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