England saw off defending champions France 17-9 to take a giant step toward a first Six Nations title in eight years and Wales edged past winless Italy 24-16 for a second straight victory in the championship on Saturday.
Fullback Ben Foden’s 42nd-minute try combined with nerveless kicking by flyhalf Toby Flood and his replacement, Jonny Wilkinson, at Twickenham ended France’s eight-match winning run in the Six Nations.
A third victory in a row kept England on course for the Grand Slam of five straight wins, with matches to come against Scotland at home and Ireland away next month.
“I think England will win the Grand Slam now. They were better than us and I think they’re the best team in the northern hemisphere at the moment,” France coach Marc Lievremont said.
Italy matched Wales by scoring two tries at the Stadio Flaminio in Rome, but Stephen Jones’ kicking saw the visitors home, the flyhalf landing 11 points through a conversion and three penalties.
Wales and France are level on four points, two fewer than England.
“I’m not pleased with how we played at times ... [but] it still puts us in contention for the championship,” Wales coach Warren Gatland said.
England and France came into the match in southwest London as the only teams to have won their opening two matches, justifying its billing as a Grand Slam decider.
The pressure of the occasion got to both sets of players and a desperate first half ended 9-9, with Flood and France scrumhalf Dimitri Yachvili kicking three penalties apiece.
England came out firing at the start of the second half and Foden barged over in the left corner two minutes in to score the game’s only try.
Wilkinson, on for the injured Flood in the 50th minute, then slotted over a penalty to go back on top of the all-time Test point-scorers list, above New Zealand flyhalf Dan Carter. Wilkinson has 1,190 points to Carter’s 1,188.
That made it 17-9 and les Bleus were unable to recover.
“It was the bad start to the second half, that was the key to the game,” Lievremont said.
England coach Martin Johnson acknowledged his team ground out the win.
“We didn’t play well in the first half, but we changed it at halftime, we sorted it out and we did better in the second half,” Johnson said. “It was a hard-fought game. They came here to win a championship and I’m very happy.”
After losing their opening match of the competition to England, Wales have won two straight to give themselves an outside chance of the title.
Center Gonzalo Canale took advantage of a dropped pass by Wales lock Bradley Davies to score an early try for Italy, but winger Morgan Stoddart and flanker Sam Warburton crossed to boost Wales to a 21-11 lead at halftime.
Italy captain Sergio Parisse drove over to cut the deficit to five points, but despite dominating the second half his side couldn’t show it on the scoreboard.
James Hook made the game safe by slotting over a drop-goal six minutes from time.
“It is a tough place to come and get a result, but I’m pleased with the result,” Gatland said. “We have ground out two tough games and the next game is home at the Millennium Stadium [against Ireland], so we want to go back there and get a result.”
The Azzurri, who have lost three in a row, fronted up well, but a lack of inspiration in the back division meant they couldn’t take advantage of their domination of possession.