England battle past France to eye Slam
England recovered from a sluggish start to hold off a rejuvenated France in the Six Nations, winning 23-13 at Twickenham to stay on course for the Grand Slam.
The French have lost all three of their matches but their much-changed lineup held a 10-9 halftime lead after Wesley Fofana's stunning solo try from the halfway line.
However, fellow centre Manu Tuilagi's 54th-minute try revived the English, who rediscovered the intensity that had swept them to victories over Scotland and Ireland in their opening two games.
Toby Flood's two late penalties took the game away from France after he came on for the injured Owen Farrell, who kicked the other 12 points.
Two more wins - against Italy at home and Wales away - will see England regain the title and earn a first Grand Slam since 2003, the year it won the World Cup.
''We're relieved we got through it,'' Tuilagi said. ''The boys worked hard out there - it was a tough game. It was a bit messy at times but we scrambled back. We were happy to get the win.''
Ridiculed after its worst start to the tournament in 31 years, France dropped more than half of its starting team from the lame loss against Wales two weeks ago. The changes, designed to beef up a talented team seemingly drained of belief, had the desired effect early on and ensured the match lived up to its billing of "Le Crunch."
''As a coach I'm thinking about my own substitutions, but you do cast a glance at the changes they are making,'' England coach Stuart Lancaster said. ''As they came on I guess they wanted to break the game up, but it played into our hand because our defense got stronger.''
France will argue that Tuilagi's try shouldn't have been awarded. England prop Mako Vunipola was standing in an offside position when Tom Wood hacked the ball out of a ruck and toward Tuilagi, who raced clear for what proved to be a vital score.
However, France's form disintegrated after Tuilagi's try and England grew in belief. The hosts' bench had a massive impact, wrestling back control of the game and forcing the French into the kind of errors they produced in defeats to Italy and Wales.
They barely had any possession in the final 20 minutes and were camped inside their own half, allowing England to ultimately run out the convincing winner.
It was all so different in the first 40 minutes.
Some of the hits were shuddering - especially when powerful centers Tuilagi and Mathieu Bastareaud came together - but the French also showed more daring than in their opening games.
That came mainly through fleet-footed first five Francois Trinh-Duc, recalled in place of the frustrating Frederic Michalak, and Fofana, back in his favoured centre position after being strangely utilised on the wing.
Fofana produced the one moment of genuine quality in a compelling, intense half when he burst down the left flank from halfway for his try. Reviving memories of Jonah Lomu in his pomp, he left five would-be tacklers trailing in his wake as he muscled past Courtney Lawes, Chris Aston (twice), Joe Marler and Ben Youngs to cross in the 30th minute.
That converted try made it 10-6 to France, with Farrell having slotted over two penalties to put England ahead, and the visitors had their tails up, dominating the scrum through the efforts of recalled prop Thomas Domingo and disrupting their opponents' rhythm.
Tuilagi briefly roused sluggish England by charging through two tackles in the 26th but was brought down five meters from the line by Morgan Parra. When the ball was recycled, Farrell's chip kick went too long for Ashton, wasting England's best try-scoring chance.
Farrell's third penalty brought England to within a point by halftime and after Parra missed two attempts from long range, Farrell booted another to restore his team's lead in the 48th.
Tuilagi's try finally gave England some breathing space. Yannick Nyanga fielded a high kick but lost control of the ball as a ruck formed. Tom Wood hacked the ball out, allowing Tuilagi to pick up and hold off Vincent Clerc in a sprint for the line.
Substitute Michalak kept things interesting by kicking a penalty for 17-13 in the 57th but France was barely in England's half after that as the home side dominated after emptying its bench.
Flood, on for the injured Farrell in the 62nd, punished French indiscipline with penalties in the final seven minutes, leaving France no chance of a comeback.