England warmed up for the Gillette Four Nations Series in encouraging fashion by overcoming a gutsy France 32-18 in front of a bumper 16,866 crowd at Parc des Sports in Avignon.
The French, fielding close to the team that lost 38-18 to England Knights seven days earlier, came up with a vastly improved display to give England a useful run-out ahead of their clash with Wales next Saturday.
But Steve McNamara’s side had too much class for their hosts and debutants Jack Reed, Rangi Chase and Chris Heighington all made valuable contributions.
Chase was named man of the match after transferring the silky skills that made him the 2011 Man of Steel on to the international stage while Reed provided the highlight with a thrilling 70-metre try.
McNamara will be irritated by the concession of two late tries that made the score closer than it ought to have been but, overall, there was much to savour about England’s performance, with Kevin Sinfield, Gareth Ellis and James Roby all enhancing their world-class status and Kirk Yeaman making an impressive return to the international scene.
Sinfield, who played the full 80 minutes, set the tone with a 40-20 kick in the first set of tackles to set up the position for Reed to get his winger Ryan Hall over for the first try with just 90 seconds on the clock.
Sinfield looked a likely tryscorer after smart offloads from front rowers James Graham and Jamie Peacock but full-back Cyril Stacul came to the rescue with a last-ditch tackle and the French hit back with their best spell of the match.
A break from debutant centre Mathias Pala signalled danger and established the position from which captain Olivier Elima scored an equalising try, winning the race to Thomas Bosc’s grubber kick despite a suspicion of a knock-on.
Bosc’s conversion edged France in front but he missed a chance to extend their lead when he failed with a penalty while loose forward Jason Baitieri lost the ball going for the line as England were put under intense pressure.
The visitors eventually weathered the storm and took a firm grip on the game with three tries in the last 11 minutes of the first half, with Chase at the heart of the fightback.
The New Zealand-born Castleford Tigers favourite combined with Sam Tomkins to get Yeaman over on 29 minutes and sent out a long pass to enable Yeaman to send his winger Tom Briscoe in shortly afterwards for the first of his brace.
The best try came just before the break when Sinfield got Graham charging into a hole in the French defence and he produced a delightful pass for Roby to touch down.
Sinfield’s second goal made it 20-6 at half-time and any prospect of a comeback by the French was ended when Briscoe grabbed his second try nine minutes into the second half, wrong-footing his marker after more good work from Tomkins.
England brought off Tomkins as a precaution after 50 minutes and replacement full-back Gareth Widdop quickly made his mark, breaking the first line of defence to release Reed, who swatted off two defenders on a superb run to the line.
Sinfield’s fourth goal opened up a 26-point lead but England relaxed their grip in the last 10 minutes to allow the French some consolation.
Lively replacement hooker Eloi Pelissier darted over for a try and winger Vincent Duport easily rounded Widdop to add a second, with Bosc kicking his third goal.
Tries: Olivier Elima, Vincent Duport, Eloi Pellisier
Goals: Thomas Bosc 3 from 4 Team: Cyril Stacul, Vincent Duport, Jean Philippe Baile, Mathias Pala, Fred Vaccari, Dane Chisholm, Thomas Bosc, David Ferriol, Gregory Mounis, Remy Casty, Olivier Elima, Cyril Gossard, Jason Baitieri. Subs: Eloi Pellisier, Djamel Fakir, Mikael Simon, Sebastian Raguin
Tries: Tom Briscoe 2, Kirk Yeaman, James Roby, Ryan Hall, Jack Reed
Goals: Kevin Sinfield 4 from 6 Team: Sam Tomkins, Ryan Hall, Jack Reed, Kirk Yeaman, Tom Briscoe, Kevin Sinfield, Rangi Chase, Jamie Peacock, James Roby, James Graham, Gareth Ellis, Ben Westwood, Chris Heighington, Gareth Widdop, Adrian Morley, Jamie Jones-Buchanan, Jon Wilkin