France up against it as primed England await in the storm
Eddie Jones’s side will be out to prove their victory over Ireland was no fluke
England’s Jack Nowell celebrates with try scorer Elliot Daly in their victory over Ireland at the Aviva last weekend. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
Six Nations: England v France
Kick off: 3pm, Sunday. Venue: Twickenham. How to follow: The Irish Times liveblog will begin at 2.30pm. On TV: Virgin Media One and UTV.
France could not have picked a worse weekend to be heading for Twickenham. The weather forecast for tomorrow is unsettled, England have not felt so jauntily confident for almost two years and the bookmakers foresee only one outcome. That makes the visitors potentially dangerous but there is even less Gallic optimism around than there is political entente cordiale in Westminster.
England’s team-sheet for the 105th edition of Le Crunch also offers little succour, even missing the injured Maro Itoje. The memory of Courtney Lawes flattening Jules Plisson four years ago is still seared across most French imaginations, as is Chris Ashton’s knack for scoring fine tries during his prolific spell at Toulon. The increasing range of threats within this England team requires little translation.
While Eddie Jones often enjoys pushing such psychological buttons, he has not gone out of his way to do so this week. More powerful, from his perspective, is England’s collective determination not to rest on their Irish laurels, with competition for places also integral to Jones’s plans for 2019 world domination. If dropping the estimable Jack Nowell to the bench means he can unleash a hugely motivated Ashton and unnerve the French even more, it is a win-win situation in every respect.
It also suits England’s push for early tries – their past four Tests have seen them cross the whitewash within three minutes of kick-off. Jonny May’s score after barely 90 seconds in Dublin maintained the trend and, should Owen Farrell win the toss, it is a decent bet he will seek to kick off again and pin Les Bleus back from the off.
In that event, few are more adept than Ashton at ghosting into unexpected space and Jones’s “gut feeling” is that the Sale winger will do so again. Unless, that is, England hit Jonny May out wide instead with Elliot Daly on his inside or Manu Tuilagi thunders through a flimsy tackle to score between the posts. England would not describe themselves as aiming to play sexy rugby but there was a savage beauty about much of their Dublin performance.
The only caveat surrounding the Aviva reawakening was that at least a couple of tries came wrapped in generous Irish ribbons. Take 14 points off England’s tally in their 32-20 victory and the picture would have looked rather different, just as France were scuppered by the two avoidable – and crucial – tries they coughed up against Wales in Paris. If first-half France, albeit a reshuffled version, materialise in London there could yet be a gripping finale.
It should also be remembered that England have not found France easy noisettes to crack lately, the last three Six Nations games between the countries having been decided by 10, three and six points respectively. The last time a big French side travelled to London in tricky wintry weather last season, Clermont Auvergne beat a startled Saracens 46-14. Give talented French players an inch and, if they are up for it, they will take a kilometre.
The onus is on England, then, to prove last weekend was not a green flash in the pan. Having received a hurry-up at training on Thursday from a Bristol squad containing the evergreen Wallaby George Smith, there is no obvious sign of England succumbing to complacency, particularly with France sharing their Rugby World Cup pool in Japan this autumn. Jones insists this game is a totally separate entity but any side losing this fixture by 20 points may beg to differ.
It is certainly a big day for Ashton, last seen as a starter in the Six Nations in 2013, and Lawes, whom Jones insists still has plenty of improvement in him despite the fact his 30th birthday is under a fortnight away. Virtually the entire bench also have good reason to impress, not least Dan Cole, who has been out of the Test frame recently, and the still-uncapped scrum-half Dan Robson. England’s team-sheet suddenly has Desperate Dans all over the place.
Hopefully the weather will not make moving the ball too difficult, although Jones does not foresee the conditions suiting a French frolic. “I don’t think it’s going to be a day for a lot of passing and a lot of wide play,” predicted the head coach. “If the conditions are like they are today, then it’s going to be a tough, grinding affair.”
In that event France’s musclebound pack might just fancy gaining a foothold, with the industrious lock Felix Lambey and the precocious tight-head prop Demba Bamba both making their first Test starts. To guard against that scenario, however, Jones has the experienced Cole and Moon on hand and Nowell is also well-suited to tight final quarters when every half-yard of forward progress counts double.
For now there is no room for either Brad Shields or Joe Cokanasiga, the two men omitted from England’s 25-man squad, but their chance will surely come against Italy next month, if not before. With each passing week Jones is starting to sound more like an NFL coach who craves specific skills on the field for particular moments of the game.
“I think the distinction between the structured part of the game and the unstructured part of the game is becoming greater,” suggested the former Wallaby coach. “The players who are going to excel in the next period of time are the players who can cope with both.”
Perhaps, but France’s initial priority will be to deal with the traditional English power game. If ever there was a snapshot from England’s team announcement in Bagshot to unnerve French rugby it was the sight of Mako Vunipola wheeling a pram containing his bright-eyed baby son Jacob down the hotel drive. Given the Vunipola genes, it is worth investing a few quid now in England winning a grand slam or two in the early 2040s.
Of more pressing relevance for England is to put in a performance that both honours their fondly remembered former scrumhalf Jan Webster, who passed away in midweek, and demonstrates that Dublin was no fluke. One Six Nations win for France at Twickenham in almost two decades does not instantly suggest an away win this time, particularly if the hosts’ superior fitness starts to tell. If someone were to offer France an injury-free 10-point loss in advance, they would probably take it.
ENGLAND: E Daly; C Ashton, H Slade, M Tuilagi, J May; O Farrell (capt), B Youngs; M Vunipola, J George, K Sinckler; C Lawes, G Kruis; M Wilson, T Curry, B Vunipola.
Replacements: L Cowan-Dickie, B Moon, D Cole, J Launchbury, N Hughes, D Robson, G Ford, J Nowell.
FRANCE: Y Huget; D Penaud, M Bastareaud, G Doumayrou, G Fickou; C Lopez, M Parra; J Poirot, G Guirado (capt), D Bamba; S Vahaamhina, F Lambey; Y Camara, A Iturria, L Picamoles.
Replacements: P Bourgarit, D Priso, D Aldegheri, P Willemse, G Alldritt, A Dupont, R Ntamack, T Ramos.