France 6 England 40
Wayne Bennett got his England tenure off to a solid start with a comfortable win in Avignon ahead of the start of the Four Nations.
Leeds winger Ryan Hall crossed twice in the first-half to extend his record as England’s top tryscorer to 28, from as many appearances.
That double, sandwiching tries by Daryl Clark and Tom Burgess, helped England into a 22-6 lead at the interval.
The quality and tempo dropped after the restart, and there was no further score until Kevin Brown slid over in the 67th minute.
England finished strongly with late tries by Jermaine McGillvary and Gareth Widdop, who finished the game with six goals from seven attempts to reach the 100-point milestone for his country.
Despite the one-sided scoreline, veteran Aussie coach Bennett – taking charge for the first time since succeeding Steve McNamara – will look for improvements before they launch their Four Nations campaign against New Zealand at a sold-out John Smith’s Stadium in Huddersfield next Saturday.
“I wasn’t disappointed - I thought we handled it pretty good without blowing them away,” said Bennett.
His side will be reinforced by the return of captain Sam Burgess from suspension, and the five Grand Finalists rested, including four from champions Wigan, who watched the game from the stands.
Those absences paved the way for five players to make their England debuts - St Helens duo Jonny Lomax and Mark Percival, Castleford’s Luke Gale, Hull FC’s Scott Taylor and Wolves’ Stefan Ratchford.
France’s squad featured 13 Super League players, stronger than the side mauled 84-4 by England a year ago. Their new coach Aurelien Cologni stoked the flames in the build-up, accusing Bennett of being guarded with their team news. “That’s why I don’t like them,” he said. “I hate their way of handling things.”
And he took issue with England’s decision to arrive on game-day on a chartered flight, though Bennett denied they had disrespected their hosts.
England ladies beat their French counterparts 36-6 in the curtain-raiser. By the time the main game had started - 6.30pm locally - there was a solid, vocal crowd inside the smart Parc Des Sports on the outskirts of Avignon.
Cologni’s instruction to play with more aggression surfaced early, with punches thrown in a third-minute scrap involving Warrington-bound Mike Cooper. Referee Phil Bentham didn’t brandish any cards but the incident will be looked at by the match review panel on Monday.
England pressed early, and twice went close in the opening few minutes through Hall and Hull FC prop Taylor. France, though, held firm and on their first attack on the visitors’ line, Eloi Pelissier sent the crowd into raptures when they found a gap in the defence which he darted through. Tony Gigot’s conversion made it 6-0.
England were favouring their right-side attack, and after Percival went close, they opened their account when a neat cut-out pass by Lomax sent Hall - called ‘Ryan Wall’ on the official team-sheet - thundering over in the 26th minute.
Widdop converted to lock the scores, and moments later Daryl Clark punished an embarrassingly-soft defence by darting over from dummy-half.
Navarrete must have delighted Wigan fans with a crunching tackle on captain James Graham which drove him back several strides. But he conceded a penalty in their next defensive set and, from that position, England powered ahead when Tom Burgess swatted off Kevin Larroyer’s tackle to angle over.
Widdop’s third successive conversion made it 18-6 and, with five minutes to go, England had enough time to nudge further ahead. With halves Gale and Widdop marshalling their flanks efficiently, the ball was shifted to their left where Hall again swept over. Widdop was this time off-target.
A constant drizzle made conditions more difficult in the second-half, and the spectacle fast fizzled out. England were solid in the middle, where the Burgess twins stood out, but they didn’t have the same purpose or attacking shape which served them so well before the break.
But Brown’s try, his first for his country, was followed by two more to add some gloss to the scoreline.
Huddersfield winger McGillvary squeezed over in the right side, and Widdop crossed after chasing a midfield grubber. Captain James Graham didn’t finish the game after an injury in a nasty tackle, but Bennett expects him to be fit for their opener.
France: Gigot; Pala, Garcia, Duport, Arnaud; Robin, Barthau; Navarrete, Da Costa, Casty, Simon, Jullien, Bousquet. Subs: Pelissier, Goudemand, Springer, Larroyer.
England: Lomax; McGillvary, Watkins, Percival, Hall; Widdop, Gale; Graham, Hodgson, Taylor, Whitehead, Cooper, T Burgess. Subs: G Burgess, Brown, Ratchford, Clark.
Referee: Phil Bentham