A stunning second-half comeback from England ensured they kicked off their 2021 Six Nations Under-20s campaign with a thrilling 38-22 victory against France at Cardiff Arms Park.
Nelson Epee scored a hat-trick inside 20 minutes for Les Bleuets as they stormed into a 19-3 lead at the interval, with England only having a Fin Smith penalty to show for their efforts.
But Alan Dickens’ men looked a different side after the break, with two tries in ten minutes from Lucas Brooke and Sam Riley - both converted by Smith - cutting the deficit to 19-17.
Thibault Debaes edged France further ahead from the tee but Orlando Bailey and Arthur Relton crossed the whitewash before Riley added another try to ensure the young Red Roses completed a memorable fightback.
The traditional France flair was in evidence from the first whistle, with Les Bleuets throwing the ball around with impressive skill and accuracy as they stretched England early.
Theo Ntamack, the younger brother of France fly-half Romain and son of the legendary Emile, made his mark quickly with a powerful run through the heart of the field.
His endeavour provided the platform for Les Bleuets to launch a slick attacking move, with the ball going through hands to Epee to dive over in the corner for a superb score.
Debaes converted to increase France’s lead to 7-0 before England responded soon after as Smith converted a penalty from an offside infringement on seven minutes.
But those three points proved to be only a brief break from Les Bleuets’ offensive brilliance in the first half as Epee scored his second of the game on 14 minutes to extend France’s lead.
Starting with a scrum on England’s 22, Debaes received the ball and judged a perfect cross-field kick to the 20-year-old winger who was able to sprint down the wing and cross once again.
Debaes was unable to find the target with the subsequent conversion but it mattered not as France cut open the England defence again for their third try inside 20 minutes.
Scrum-half Théo Idjellidaine orchestrated the attack with guile, keeping the ball moving as the blue shirts flooded the England rearguard and left Dickens’ men scrambling.
Idjellidaine spotted an overlap down the left flank and found Leo Barre who carried the ball forward before drawing in his man and giving the ball to Epee to complete his hat-trick.
The young Red Roses outfit struggled to find an answer to France’s dynamic backline and when they did have possession and territory on 24 minutes, Ntamack forced a turnover.
England continued to look for a way back into the contest as the half-time break approached but Les Bleuets were able to see of any danger to go in 19-3 to the good at the interval.
With a 16-point deficit to make up, England could ill-afford to concede the first points after the restart and they soon cut the deficit with their opening try of the Championship.
A penalty allowed Smith to kick to the corner and from the lineout, England hammered at the blue wall with several pick-and-goes before Brooke reached out a long arm to score.
Smith stepped up to knock over the conversion and with the momentum swinging in their direction, England found the try-line again five minutes later through a similar move.
Alex Groves won lineout ball, this time in the right corner, before the young Red Roses pack launched a driving maul which shoved France back and allowed replacement Riley to dot down.
The conversion was once again added by Smith and suddenly the gap was just two but France hit back straight away after Jack Clement conceded a penalty, which Debaes converted.
England did not allow that small setback slow them down, though, and having trailed since the third minute, the young Red Roses stormed ahead for the first time before the hour.
Harvey Beaton and Riley both made good ground before the ball was moved quickly in France’s 22 to Bailey, who spotted a gap and sprinted through the middle to tumble in under the posts.
Smith’s conversion put England 24-22 in front on 55 minutes and Dickens’ side showed no sign of taking their foot off the gas, with their bonus-point try coming ten minutes later.
The Red Rose found themselves in France’s 22 once again and after driving closer to the line, the ball with whipped wide by Smith to Relton who was able to walk over in the corner.
But England were not done yet and after Smith added the extras, they descended on France’s defence again as Riley crashed over for his second of the afternoon to put the icing on the cake.
PLAYER OF THE MATCH
Nelson Epee appeared to be unplayable in the first half as he raced in a quickfire hat-trick.
But England showed their character as they recovered from a 19-3 defict to emerge triumphant.
Several of the young Red Roses stood up in the second half but Jack van Poortvliet was a cut above, orchestrating the England attack and making all the right calls at the right time.