England's Under-18 AER side, skippered by Gloucester's Mike Wilcox, suffered an agonising defeat 19-20 in the final of the Association Europeenne de Rugby Tournament in Toulon today as hosts France retained the title.
Prior to the game, Wilcox had expressed how determined the England team had been to win the tournament for the first time in three years:
"Our mission statement when we got together earlier this season was to get to the final and then to win it," said Wilcox, who plays for St Peter's Catholic HS and Gloucester.
"We said when we played Ireland that it was the biggest game of our careers to date, but playing France, the hosts in a fantastic stadium, is even bigger."
"But we don't want to be just part of a big occasion, we want to win the competition."
"Honours don't come much bigger than captaining your country and it will be a very proud moment both for myself and my family when I lead the side out on Saturday."
And England duly played their part in a fast and furious game which was a terrific advert for age group rugby.
But they ran out of time in their attempt to overturn the 14 points advantage that France established with two converted tries early in the second half.
A try from centre Sam Stanley, the nephew of former All Blacks legend Joe, and a conversion and two penalties from skipper Mike Wilcox reduced France's lead to a point but the final whistle came as England were battering away at the home line.
"If we had played another couple of minutes we would probably have won," said Paul Mullan, England's head coach.
"We had three or four half-chances which we couldn't take and some last-ditch tackling from the French frustrated us at the end.
"Marland Yarde almost scored from a 60 metres break but he got hauled down just short of the line."
"We probably needed to control the ball better at times but it was a fantastic game of rugby and you have to give credit to the boys for the way they stood up in what was an intimidating atmosphere."
"There was a big crowd, mainly French as you would expect, but our line-out and scrummage were outstanding."
"Today's result was disappointing because it was our only defeat of the season and we set out to win this competition for the first time in three years."
"But we won five of our six games this season and I think that we have seen plenty of development in the players since we first got together in January."
"That is a credit to the coaches and management team. They have been a great group to work with, it's been a very enjoyable season and I'm hoping that the boys will go on to bigger and better things as a result of this experience."
England's first half points came from a penalty from Stanley and dropped goal from Wilcox but France landed three penalties to hold a slender 9-6 lead at the interval.
Today's result means that England will be second seed for next season's AER Tournament.
England Under-18 AER
15 Ben Ransom (Tonbridge School, Saracens and Kent); 14 Anders Mogensen (Millfield School and Northampton Saints), 13Henry Staff (Bedford Modern School, Saracens and Hertfordshire), 12 Sam Stanley (Oaklands College, Saracens and Essex), 11 Alex Lewington (Nottingham HS and Leicester Tigers); 10 Mike Wilcox (St Peter's RC HS, Gloucester and Gloucestershire - captain), 9 Chris Cook (Millfield School, Bath and Somerset); 1 Simon McIntyre (St Bedes School, Broughton Park, Sale Sharks and Lancashire), 2 Harry Hannan (Woodhouse Grove School, Leeds Carnegie and Yorkshire), 3 Will Collier (Cranleigh School, Harlequins and Surrey), 4 Joe Launchbury (Christ's Hospital School, Harlequins and Sussex), 5 Kieron Low (Havant College, Chichester and Sussex), 6 Chris Walker (Prince Henry's GS, Leeds Carnegie and Yorkshire), 7 Oliver Robinson (Prior Park College, Bath and Somerset), 8 Matt Kvesic (Worcester Sixth Form College, Worcester Warriors and North Midlands).
Replacements used :
Matt Keyte (Dulwich College, Bath and Surrey), Ben Mosses (Millfield School, Bath and Somerset) for Cook, Marland Yarde (Whitgift School, London Irish and Middlesex) for Ransom, Josh Elliott (Dulwich College, Old Alleynians, London Wasps and Surrey) for Hannan, Chris Fox (Bromsgrove School, Worcester Warriors and North Midlands) for Collier, David Francis (Twyford C of E High School, London Wasps and Middlesex) for Walker, Matthew Steele (Dame Alice Owen School, Saracens and Hertfordshire) for Low, Liam Wilkinson (St Peter's Catholic HS, Gloucester and Gloucestershire) for Kvesic.
Henry Purdy, a first half replacement for Charlie Sharples, was amongst the try scorers in the 64-19 victory over Aviron Bayonnais on Saturday evening and told GRTV that it was a professional performance, one the team are happy with.
Gloucester's win in Treviso last week means that they need a bonus point win against Bayonne on Saturday evening to secure a home quarter-final (kick off 8pm), but Tim Taylor wants the team to focus on the performance first and foremost.
Billy Burns and Man of the Match Richard Hibbard spoke to GRTV after the 41-0 win in Treviso, on a day when preparations weren't ideal. They felt the team's attitude was key and also praised the travelling support.
Following the conclusion of the Stade Francais vs Harlequins game today, round six is complete and the quarter-finalists in the European Rugby Challenge Cup are now known with Gloucester set to welcome the Cardiff Blues to Kingsholm.
Knowing a bonus point win would secure a home quarter-final, Gloucester completed their European mission in some style on Saturday evening, sweeping aside a spirited but outgunned Aviron Bayonnais scoring 10 tries on their way to a 64-19 victory.