England Under-20s went down fighting against a strong French side in Draguignan, losing their opening Six Nations game 21-15.
Northampton Saints centre Tom Stephenson and Saracens lock Maro Itoje scored for England, while Gloucester fly half Billy Burns added five points with the boot.
England started the brighter of the teams and were 7-0 up after six minutes. Gloucester flanker Ross Moriarty, later named BMW Man of the Match, smashed past the gain line after a well-executed line-out before popping the ball to Stephenson who dived over.
But France hit back with two quick-fire penalties from the boot of scrum half Baptiste Serin to make it 7-6 as England hooker Harry Thacker was sent to the sin-bin.
The hosts continued to dominate proceedings and would have claimed the lead but for some heroic English defending. With the ball in hand England looked good, but on a deteriorating pitch free-flowing rugby was in short supply.
France took the lead two minutes into the second half as Serin sent his third penalty between the posts but Burns hit back immediately to put England 10-9 up.
Both sides then went down to 14 men after an exchange near England’s try-line – Purdy in the bin for England – and with 58 played France had the lead again. Captain Francois Cros scored in the corner after heavy pressure and Serin made no mistake with a tricky conversion out wide to make it 16-10.
With just over 15 minutes left to play France went down to 14 men permanently when replacement prop Anthony Rochet was sent off for a head-butt on England’s Danny Hobbs-Awoyemi.
England looked to have made their man advantage count when Itoje rumbled over with five minutes to go to make it 16-15, but after Burns’ conversion sailed just wide France hit back and scored the decisive try with 78 played to make it 21-15 and game over.
Forwards coach Ian Peel said: “We’re disappointed with the result, we know that we can perform better than we did, but saying that there were parts of our game that functioned well. Our defence was excellent for large periods and I guess the exciting thing is that we know that there’s still a lot to come from this side. Fair play to France though – they took their chances and have come away with the win.”
Captain Callum Braley added: “I think frustration probably best sums up the mood in the changing room. We know that we can play better but the conditions were tough and we gave it our best shot. On a personal level it was a massive honour to lead the guys out for the first time and so long as we learn from tonight’s loss then we can take some positives.”