Taking all the tabloid talk out of it, both England and France have had pretty dire World Cup campaigns so far. Both need a win this weekend to be able to return home with some of their dignity intact, but with changes in the wrong places for England and a French team who are as consistently inconsistent as ever, which of the two is likely to come out on top?
Date: 8th October 2011
Time: 8.30pm NZDT/8.30am BST
Venue: Eden Park, Auckland
Referee: Steve Walsh (Aus)
Last week’s win over Scotland was nothing to celebrate as England were sloppy across the park. Jonny Wilkinson had a shocker and, although his kicks were from difficult angles, we are too used to seeing him achieve the impossible it is implausible that the man missed so many shots at goal. Matt Stevens is the luckiest man in the world after retaining his jersey as he haemorrhaged penalties at scrum time last week – he needs a monumental game against the aggressive French front row.
The introduction of Toby Flood at inside centre will hopefully generate a little more attacking fluidity and someone made a very valid point on the comments underneath the team selection on The Rugby Blog that this is exactly how Flood began his career as an understudy to Wilkinson. Finally, the fact Deacon and Moody are starting is not right as they are not the in-form players in their positions, but I’m sure the French won’t look forward to seeing the likes of Lawes and Haskell coming off the bench.
Where to start. After what was one of the worst performances from the French I have ever seen last weekend, Les Bleus have scrapped through to the final eight. Much has been made about the feelings inside the camp, with Marc Lievremont trying to control his own little microcosm of a revolution from some players. However, clear the air talks have apparently been held, so we will find out on Saturday if they are back to their best. The Parra experiment continues at fly half and although it remains a little bit of a strange choice, it gives them options if Yachvilli goes missing at the break down. Harinordoquy’s inclusion gives the team both experience and go-forward. The back three are as exciting as usual but it will need to get through their centres and they have a strong pack which will look to bully England around the park.
What to expect:
Martin Johnson is clearly looking to play this game through the forwards with the option of sending it wide late on. It’s boring rugby but, from his stand point, he feels it will help us grind out a win. France will be looking to maintain their composure, play through the phases before releasing their back three. Everyone is saying the French have nothing to lose but that is not the case at all. They are very proud and will not want to go home to a media who are baying for blood.
All Eyes On:
The Wilkinson and Flood combination will be critical when it comes to using England’s advantage. It’s almost as if the team has been split, with Wilkinson likely to play fly half when the forwards are putting in the hard yards, and Flood stepping in when they look to release their backs. If it works, Johnson will be praised, if not, more questions will be asked as to why he only brought one credible inside centre.
France need Parra to perform. No team can fully function without a fly half who can control the game properly. Regardless if he is playing out of position or not, he needs a big game, especially with the likes of Tuilagi running down his channel all day.
Head-to-head: Croft, Moody, Easter v Dusautoir, Bonnaire, Harinordoquy
I’ve cheated here, but I don’t care. The breakdown will be where this game, as usual, is won and lost. If England can disturb Yachvilli’s distribution through these three men then it will mean France constantly have difficulty crossing the gain line. It would have been nicer to see Haskell and Wood instead of Moody and Easter, but such is the way with Johnno. As for France, Harinordoquy is one of those players who helps you find an extra few yards when they are needed and although Dusautoir was, and remains, a fitness doubt, he is a unit who brings so much to the break down. The rucks do not only include these six players, but they will dictate how much of it goes.
Last fixture: England 17-9 France, 26th February, 2011. Twickenham, England.
Weather Forecast: Rain (it’s New Zealand, what do you expect!)
This is so hard to call because, as clichéd and as repetitive as it may have become, no one, not even the French, can predict which side will turn up. I imagine they will want to up their game after a humiliating loss to Tonga, but there is the danger of overdoing it which leads to forced passed etc. If they don’t turn up it is proof that Lievremont has truly lost them. England need to get points on the board early to in an effort to throw the French off their game. If they can keep it tight and keep it disciplined however, I can’t see anything more than an England win. England by four points.
by Nick Winn