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 hosts’ 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 France defense early in the second half and England deservedly nosed ahead when he set up debutant center 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.
However, 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’ faces after the game. It’s a great sign for the season.”
“It’s disappointing to have fought back into the game from being 16-3 down to lose, very disappointing, 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,” England coach Stuart Lancaster said. “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.”
Earlier in Cardiff, 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.
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 last year.
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.”