LONDON (AP) — Manu Tuilagi's fortuitous try inspired a second-half turnaround for England in a 23-13 victory over France at Twickenham on Saturday, keeping the Six Nations leaders 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 center Tuilagi collected a loose ball that popped out of a 54th-minute ruck and sprinted over for a score that revived England, which then emptied its power-packed bench of replacements to take the game away from the French.
Toby Flood, on for the injured Owen Farrell, kicked two penalties in the final seven minutes to seal a third straight win for the English. Two more victories — against Italy at home and Wales away — will see them regain the title and earn a first Grand Slam since 2003, the year they 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."
From being pre-competition favorite, France is faced with the embarrassing prospect of finishing with the wooden spoon for the first time since 1957. Philippe Saint-Andre's decision to drop more than half his starting team from the lame loss against Wales two weeks ago had the desired effect early on but a series of bizarre and strangely timed replacements hampered their cause in the final 30 minutes.
"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.
The French disintegrated after that as England grew in belief, with its reserves wrestling back control of the game and forcing their opponents into the kind of errors they produced in defeats to Italy and Wales.
"We expected a little bit more from our bench," Saint-Andre said. "So many times we tried impossible offloads and lost the ball in the contact area and England didn't do amazing things, but they were accurate and we were not accurate enough."
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 — and meant the match lived up to its billing as "Le Crunch."
The French showed more daring than in their opening games, though, mainly through fleet-footed flyhalf Francois Trinh-Duc — recalled in place of the frustrating Frederic Michalak — and Fofana, back in his favored center position after being strangely utilized on the wing.
Trinh-Duc's substitution for Michalak in the 53rd minute, when the game was in the balance, seemed an odd choice at the time.
Fofana produced the one moment of genuine quality in a compelling first 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 Ashton (twice), Joe Marler and Ben Youngs to cross in the 30th minute.
"It was a fantastic try," Saint-Andre said.
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.
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 and although Michalak's penalty for 17-13 kept things interesting, France appeared to self-destruct with its substitution policy.
Farrell limped off with what seemed to be a right leg injury but England was in charge by then and didn't lose its grip on the game.
"I thought our control grew in the game," Lancaster said. "Our defence was fantastic. It wasn't exactly how we had planned but it was a proper test match."