The odds are firmly against England on Saturday but, with so much at stake for the French, there is hope for Martin Johnson’s team.
1. Target France’s half-backs
Scrum-half Morgan Parra and fly half Francois Trinh-duc have shown great composure and quality in the championship so far. But at times they have creaked – most notably in the second half against Wales – and in an atmosphere of frenzied expectation England will look to pressurise the young French pair.
For this reason Lewis Moody’s recall was a must. He, along with Danny Care, has the pace and the energy to confront the duo and disrupt the supply to France’s bullocking back row and destructive centres. With no recognised fly-half on the bench, France are relying on Trinh-duc to marshal them home, and if England can disrupt them, they could spoil the party.
2. Kick and chase
France have by far the best counter-attacking unit in Europe. An intuitive back three and an athletic back row make for a devastating combination, and they will rip England apart if the visitors’ kick and chase is of insufficient quality.
Toby Flood must succeed where Jonny Wilkinson has failed by kicking from the hand with purpose and accuracy, and the chase must be aggressive and organised, transferring pressure onto the opponents. If they do this effectively, players such as Clement Poitrenaud can go from asset to liability in an instant.
3. Stealing set-piece possession
The might of the French tight five has been a feature of the championships, and although England are unlikely to gain much ground at the scrum, they will be more optimistic at line-out time.
Imanol Harinordoquy is a supreme line-out operator, but Ireland had some joy in pilfering French possession and Simon Shaw will have to be at his aggressive best at the front of the line, while Steve Borthwick could yet have the final word after so much criticism.
4. Brutal but bright defence
There will be plenty of hard and direct running from the French, and England will have to make some big hits, but they’ll also need to defend cleverly. France used the spectre of Yannick Jauzion and David Marty against Italy to create massive chasms in the Italian defence, which was then exploited by wingers Julien Malzieu and Marc Andreu to devastating effect. With Mike Tindall at outside centre, England will be more confident of contending with France’s midfield threat and have some useful experience to marshal the defence.
France will also be anxious to test the competence of Northampton pair Ben Foden and Chris Ashton under the high ball and with the ball behind them, and they’ll need support when the inevitable barrage of high balls begins. If they can hold their own, they might just be able to stifle the French attacking threat.
5. Expose chinks in French armour
Identifying weaknesses in France’s defence is an unenviable task, but Italy’s two tries last Sunday prove that it is not impregnable. England will struggle to find a fluid, off-loading game overnight – despite the inclusion of Flood who is superior to Wilkinson in this facet of the game – and so they may be left relying on individual brilliance to break the line.
France have a massive back row but they are not always the nimblest. Care, who will be confident of confronting scrum half Parra physically, could use his quick feet to good effect around the rucks and mauls if England can tie-in the French back row by committing numbers to the breakdown. The hot-stepping from Riki Flutey and the injection of pure pace from Foden and Ashton against the potentially cumbersome Jauzion and Mathieu Bastareaud, could also be among England’s most potent weapons, and if England run with pace at the French defence, they might just get some joy.
It won’t be easy, and it certainly won’t be expected, but France are beatable, and England have the players to beat them. Whether those players can play to their potential and combine as a team is doubtful, but England might just spoil the French party on Saturday night.
By Jonny Mcleod