By Mitch Phillips
LONDON, Feb 23 (Reuters) - International rugby coaches never tire of saying that the modern game is a 23-man effort and rarely can the influence of the opposing benches have had as much impact as in England's 23-13 Six Nations victory over France on Saturday.
France coach Philippe Saint-Andre, having been savaged for his selections in the opening defeats by Italy and Wales, made seven changes to his starting lineup for the Twickenham clash.
His new team immediately looked more balanced as they took the game to their fiercest rivals on a ground where they had won only twice in the last 26 years.
They should have been ahead by more than the solitary point at 10-9 at halftime after Wesley Fofana, restored to his usual centre role after being marooned on the wing in France's first two games, scored a scintillating 60-metre try.
The new halfback pairing of Morgan Parra and Francois Trinh-Duc was working well and France were dominating, though their indiscipline kept England in the game as Owen Farrell landed four successive penalties.
However, after Parra missed two kicks at goal either side of halftime, Saint-Andre felt he had to bring on Frederic Michalak to take over the kicking duties.
Michalak duly landed a three-pointer but his mere presence was a lift to England's players and the Twickenham fans, who have dined out for a decade on the flaky nature of the flyhalf now playing scrumhalf alongside flyhalf Jonny Wilkinson for his club Toulon.
The impressive Parra was also taken off, as were hooker Benjamin Kayser and flanker Yannick Nyanga, both of whom had been real thorns in England's side, and France immediately lost their cohesion.
In contrast, Stuart Lancaster's changes seemed to energise the England team. He made a triple switch seven minutes into the second half, as hooker Tom Youngs, prop Mako Vunipola and flanker James Haskell joined the fray, with scrumhalf Danny Care not far behind them.
The two sets of changes clearly impacted the flow of the game as England, who had barely threatened the French line for an hour, began to take charge.
Even the injury-enforced loss of Owen Farrell did not hinder the hosts as Toby Flood came on and slotted two excellent penalties to take the game out of the reach of the French.
"The overall message was about finishing the game in the last 20 minutes and that is what was happened," Lancaster told reporters.
"I thought we gained the ascendancy at that point, there's no doubt about it. As a coach I'm thinking about my own substitutions, but you do cast a glance at the changes they are making.
"As they came on I guess they wanted to break the game up, but it played into our hands because our defence got stronger.
"France brought their 'A game' and got their try, but we're happy with our composure and our discipline. It showed a great level of maturity for a young side with an average age of 24, playing against a side which has been to a World Cup final."
That agonisingly close 8-7 defeat by New Zealand in 2011 is already looking a distant memory for France, who have now lost five and drawn one of their last six Six Nations games.
Narrow bookmakers' favourites before the tournament, their worst start since 1982 has left them in real danger of their first wooden spoon since 1957.
"We expected a little bit more from our bench," said Saint-Andre. "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.
"We had an opportunity at 10-9 for more points when England were not as confident, but we didn't take it. We have to learn from this and carry on."
France now face a tough trip to Ireland, before finishing at home to Scotland, when the unthinkable prospect of a wooden spoon decider could be on the cards.
England, in contrast, are marching towards their first grand slam since 2003. They host Italy next in a game they should win comfortably then face what could well be a championship decider against defending champions Wales in Cardiff on March 16. (Editing by Mark Meadows; [email protected]; +44 20 7542 7933; Reuters Messaging:; [email protected])