Records tumbled at Twickenham with promises kept. It was a match where we were going to bear witness to a great entertainer. And we did -- except it wasn't England's Marcus Smith running the show. Instead, this was yet another incredible performance by the magician Antoine Dupont as France handed England a record 53-10 seven-try hammering.
England will hope this was a freak day where everything went wrong. France will look to this as a giant step forward towards, hopefully, winning their maiden World Cup when they host the event in October. This was England's biggest ever Six Nations defeat, their third worst ever in any competition.
It was an occasion of pure pathetic fallacy -- the rain teeming down on Twickenham, with England given a painful lesson by a team years ahead of them. It was to be an evening serving a wonderful reminder of how far France have come since the last World Cup, but there can rarely have been a two-hour spell which offered England such a brutal and stark realisation of the vast chasm between them and the likes of France and Ireland.
As Damien Penaud danced over pretty much unopposed for France's sixth and seventh tries, the well-bundled up England fans flocked in their thousands for the exits, leaving French voices ringing out among the remaining stunned supporters. Still, at least Twickenham Station would not have that usual full-time rush.
France had a 20-point lead at half time thanks to tries from Thomas Ramos, Thibaud Flament and Charles Ollivon. They would add another four in the second 40 through Flament, Ollivon (a wonderful sniped effort as he pounced on a loose ball at the back of a ruck to dot down) and two runaway Penaud efforts.
The famous old ground has seen some remarkable days, the evenings where those in white looked like they were walking on water, matches where they could do no wrong. The days where songs ring out late into the night, the local pub bustling with red rose optimism as they pore over tries and look eagerly to the future now seem like eons ago. Here, Twickenham was lit up in French tricolore. And the brutal thing? It could have been worse for England. "When you know the place rugby has in this country, our thoughts are with the England team who will experience a difficult moment," a tearful Fabien Galthie, the France head coach, said at full time. "For us, it means we're for real."
The final try count was 7-1 and a fair reflection. And for the various shots on the big screen of Steve Borthwick, the England coach, looking grimly aware of the predicament facing him alongside his hunched over coaching staff (you feel for Borthwick), there were the others of the pinch-yourself delighted France group. Remember when we were wondering if France had peaked early and had been given a World Cup-wounding blow by Ireland in the second round of this championship? Nope, that was not France peaking, but instead a match where they learnt, regrouped, and then unleashed wave after wave of blue-shirted fury on an England team who had few answers.
From an England perspective, the pre-match talk revolved around Smith. He was picked at fly-half by Borthwick ahead of captain Owen Farrell. After Smith's star-turn on this patch of grass last weekend for Harlequins against Exeter, this was supposed to be his evening where he could run the show his way. But he was never given a fair chance. England only had front-foot ball and built any pressure for a five-minute spell at the start of the second half. Smith never stood a chance behind a pack that splintered and a team that lacked the same intensity as their dominant opponents.
The errors were alarming, but it was the passiveness which was perhaps most concerning. After that promising win in Wales last time out, England looked to be building some momentum -- but France ignored that narrative. Shaun Edwards, the English-born defence coach for France, put together a gameplan that halted any sense of burgeoning English optimism. "There is a big gap between us and the top teams in the world," Borthwick said. "We'll address it and try and close it as soon as we can."
It is hard to justify this performance if you are the RFU. One fan lamented the £135 he had spent on a ticket in the corner of the stadium -- "Is that value for money?" he shouted. Others had already gone. "At least the bus is quiet," was one message from an England supporter on the hour mark, when France had only run in four tries.
England's nadir was supposed to be the defeat to South Africa in the autumn, so where do you class this? All along Borthwick has spoken of how far England are off the best teams in the world, and this hammered it home in Bleus brilliance. Le Crunch? This was Le Crumble.
For France, this is one of their finest days. Thomas Ramos was exceptional, Gregory Alldritt world-class, Thibaud Flament immense and Charles Ollivon on another planet. And this is before you get into the defensive work Jonathan Danty went through on his comeback or how they won the set piece and judged substitutions well. In short, France were better at everything. And then there's Dupont. For neutrals or more casual England fans, he's worth the admission alone.
"I think we're finding it hard to realise when you see the scoreboard. 53-10 at Twickenham in the den of rugby," Dupont said. "It will remain historic. I'm happy with our match, our result, the performance."
There are few positives for England. While there was no white flag, but this will cut deep. There must be concerns around the spine of the team -- Alex Dombrandt was again powerless at No.8, Jack van Poortvliet struggled at scrum-half and well, the rest of it didn't really work. There was no power. However, what will sting Borthwick the most - even above the seven tries conceded, was the chorus of boos at full-time from the England fans who remained in the stands to witness this destruction. He wanted England to reconnect with their supporters this Six Nations and instead they have returned home defeats against Scotland and France, and a hard-fought win over Italy. The sights of the empty seats as a backdrop to France's celebrations will be a scar hard to heal.
"The team is always really grateful for their support," Borthwick said. "We weren't able to put on a good performance for the supporters today and we weren't able to do that and that hurts us. I'm sure it hurt the supporters as well. One thing I'll promise is that there will be no shortage of hard work to find the improvement we need."
England will learn from this. It could yet prove to be like their 1998 Tour of Hell where Australia hammered England. Five years later, England won the World Cup in Australia against the Wallabies. This should be the same bottom line. Borthwick spoke of needing to win more collisions, but they have to rebuild this team from the ground up.
Meanwhile, France gave the rest of the world -- in front of the watching All Blacks coaches -- a reminder of their unwavering focus on winning the sport's biggest prize in October. Ireland are still ahead of them in the pecking order, but France won't give up the chase. And in Dupont they have the greatest card of all -- an entertainer, but someone far more than a box of tricks: a captain, a playmaker, a game-changer all wrapped up in a bundle of brilliance. The scary thing? France have a team of these types of players and the strength in depth to replace like for like.
Looking for something even more terrifying from an English point of view? Next up is Ireland.