DIMITRI YACHVILI'S fighting weight may be somewhere in the region of 83 kilograms, which makes him international rugby's equivalent of a seven-stone weakling, but the scrum-half from Biarritz spent much of yesterday afternoon kicking sand in English faces. He should not have been able to kick anything at all, given the strength-sapping conditions at Twickenham and the matchstick legs bestowed upon him by his genes, yet this single- point victory for France - their first championship success in London since 1997 - was entirely down to Yachvili's virtuosity in the left boot department.
England, on the other hand, did not have a boot of any description - at least, not one on which they could rely. Charlie Hodgson, the outside- half from Sale whose fondest wish is to play well enough to make the endless comparisons with Jonny Wilkinson redundant, managed to realise 50 per cent of that ambition by proving once and for all that he and his predecessor in the No 10 shirt are very different animals. Sadly for him, this was achieved not by performing brilliantly, but by suffering the torments of hell. Hodgson did some good things - he generally does, for he is a footballer of wit and vision - but at the important moments, he messed up.
He split the goal-kicking duties with Olly Barkley, the Bath centre, and the statistics will for ever show that neither of them were capable of hitting a barn door with a banjo. But Barkley's failures, two shortly before the interval and a third midway through the final quarter, were from distances bordering on the epic. Hodgson's were nowhere near as acceptable. The penalty he miscued from close range on the half-hour - Pepito Elhorga, a Tricolore full- back so hilariously vulnerable he might have been dreamed up by Jacques Tati, had deliberately hurled the ball into touch to save himself a ragging from the England wings - was expensive enough. The drop goal he fluffed at the death cost his side everything.
Between them Hodgson and Barkley let 21 points slip from their grasp. Yachvili, meanwhile, landed three-pointers from every angle known to geometry, and from the furthest-flung areas of the field - from 50-odd metres towards the right touch-line, from 40-plus metres wide out on the left. When he missed, it was from three-wood rather than nine-iron territory, and even then, it was not by much. England must have known he was in the groove when, after 23 minutes, he bounced a mighty effort off the left upright. As a sighter, it was as disturbing to red rose eyes as it was impressive.
The fact that the world champions, subject as they are to the law of diminishing returns and desperate for an upturn in fortunes, let this one drift away before their home audience will make them spit nails. They played reasonably well up front, particularly in the loose, and tackled magnificently - none more so than Jamie Noon, operating in his natural habitat of outside-centre after an ill- advised flirtation with the inside position in Cardiff eight days previously. The Newcastle midfielder clattered the fragile Elhorga and the distinctly un-fragile Sebastien Chabal with seismic hits early in the second half, scared the living daylights out of Damien Traille a few minutes later and forced Christophe Dominici into a panic-stricken grounding of the ball in goal as the contest churned towards its climax.
They also scored two excellent first-half tries through Barkley, who sent Noon careering past Yann Delaigue with a delightful pass before taking the return to run in from 15m, and the characteristically energetic Josh Lewsey, who breezed past Sebastien Bruno with a classically proportioned outside break and left Elhorga choking in the exhaust fumes. …