The friendly sparring is finally over and this Saturday will see England head to France with the gloves off and every intent of striking a meaningful blow in this the last of their World Cup warm-up games.
With the official IRB deadline for World Cup squad announcements expiring on Tuesday there is no more hiding behind half cock teams or experimenting with fanciful combinations, and this is reflected accordingly by the selections of both coaches.
France, whilst resting several players from last weeks absorbing encounter, field a side full of purpose and with more than a smattering of class. England, having finally named those charged with the futile task of defending the Webb Ellis trophy, are as close to full strength as is possible.
The defeat at Twickenham didn’t sit well with Brian Ashton. In fact such was the manner in which England blew the game Ashton was stirred from his usual placid manner into a state of fury. If the chariot fails to operate smoothly this weekend Ashton could soon be enrolling on an anger management course.
Luckily for him his side reflects his desire to head to the World Cup on the back of a meaningful win. As if Ashton didn’t know this his counterpart, Bernard Laporte, was quick to highlight the importance of this game to England’s somewhat fragile confidence.
“They cannot allow themselves to go into the World Cup with a badly-negotiated match in Marseille,” stressed Laporte.
“For us, it is only the second preparation match, with a team that is going to change because we want to see as many players as possible.
“You can be sure that they are putting in place the necessary ingredients to improve their state of spirit.”
However with Jonny Wilkinson back at fly half ones feels England will control the game to better effect. For all Olly Barkley’s kicking finesse last week his inability to close the game out was glaringly obvious. If England find themselves in a favourable position like last week you can be assured Wilkinson will step to the fore and boss the game, particularly in terms of field position.
The England eight again has a menacing look to it and will be targeting the French pack in a similar fashion to last week. England will be thankful for small mercies knowing that there will be no Sebastian Chabal to contend with. The manner in which he brushed aside Lewsey and Abendanon was reminiscent of Jonah Lomu rampaging over England at the 1995 and 1999 World Cups.
Laporte too should feel a little under pressure having watched his pack dominated with such contempt by an impressive English eight last time out. However with the likes of Julien Bonnaire, Thierry Dusautoir and Imanol Harinordoquy set to feature this week he has certainly added some beef to the pack.
While France won a fascinating contest last week they did so without ever being truly convincing. It has become the French nature to only do as much is necessary and not an ounce more. No doubt the bourgeoisie will be expecting a more decisive display so close to September 7 and the World Cup’s opening game.
It is expected that Laporte will start with the frustratingly brilliant Freddie Michalak at fly half, for what will be his first start in a French shirt for over a year. Having crumbled under the pressure of a World Cup semi-final in 2003 against England he will be keen to show that he can hold his nerve as well as conjure magic from within.
To an extent Laporte was right when he pointed to the fact this is only his side’s second warm-up game, whereas for Ashton and England this is their last outing before they embark on the USA in Lens. However Laporte will know his charges need to improve their performance on Saturday and prove they have the killer instinct.
If Brian Ashton was angry in the manner which England’s bit part cart wobbled and fell last week he will be hoping his chariot can soothe the pain at the second time of asking. If not then the prospect of an impending return to French soil in a few weeks will be greeted with as much anticipation as a holiday with the in-laws.
One to Watch:
For France: No doubt you will keep an eye on Freddie Michalak and you will be interested to see how Cedric Heymans goes but the real one to watch will be Imanol Harinordoquy. The Biarritz back row man needs to come to the fore if he is to secure a permanent starting position in the side. He has all the skill one could ask for but at times has the ability to forget as much. When he is on his game Harinordoquy is as fine a back row player as there is, all he needs to do is find that game once more.
For England: With the World Cup squad selected the pressure for selection is off to an extent and expect England to have a more relaxed air to them. Jonny Wilkinson will be a pivotal figure in England’s quest to dominate the game. However it is young Wasps flanker Tom Rees who you will want to keep an eye on. The only specialist openside in England’s World Cup squad, he is an exciting player and will look to put the shackles on the French back line.
Head to Head: With Andy Farrell and Dan Hipkiss pairing up in the midfield for only the second time it will be their job to neutralise Yannick Jauzion and Damien Traille as well as look for a way through the French centres. Farrell was, to many, a controversial selection while Hipkiss is new to the international stage and with plenty to prove. Jauzion and Traille are experienced players and will be sure of keeping England busy with the ball in hand.
Prediction: One cant help but feel France were stronger last week whereas England are more so this time around. Home ground advantage will be a key factor for France but England will fancy they can sneak this one. England by 6.
2007: France won 21-15 at Twickenham, London
2007: England won 26-18 at Twickenham, London
2006: France won 31-6 at Stade de France, Paris
2005: France won 18-17 at Twickenham, London
2004: France won 24-21 at Stade de France, Paris
2003: England won 24-7 at Stadium Australia, Sydney (RWC)
2003: England won 45-14 at Twickenham, London
2003: France won 17-16 in Marseille
2003: England won 25-17 at Twickenham, London
2002: France won 20-15 at Stade de France, Paris
2001: England won 48-19 at Twickenham, London
2000: England won 15-9 at Stade de France, Paris
France: (from) Jean-Baptiste Elissalde, Pierre Mignoni, Freddie Michalak, David Skrela, Yannick Jauzion, Damien Traille, Christophe Dominici, Cedric Heymans, Aurelien Rougerie, Clement Poitrenaud, Sebastian Bruno, Raphael Ibanez (c), Nicolas Mas, Olivier Milloud, Jean-Baptiste Poux, Lionel Nallet, Fabien Pelous, Jerome Thion, Julien Bonnaire, Thierry Dusautoir, Imanol Harinordoquy, Yannick Nyanga.
England: 15 Mark Cueto, 14 Josh Lewsey, 13 Dan Hipkiss, 12 Andy Farrell, 11 Jason Robinson, 10 Jonny Wilkinson, 9 Shaun Perry, 8 Nick Easter, 7 Tom Rees, 6 Martin Corry, 5 Steve Borthwick, 4 Simon Shaw, 3 Phil Vickery (c), 2 George Chuter, 1 Perry Freshwater.
Replacements: 16 Lee Mears, 17 Matt Stevens, 18 Joe Worsley, 19 Lawrence Dallaglio, 20 Andy Gomarsall, 21 Olly Barkley, 22 Paul Sackey.
Date: Saturday, August 18
Venue: Stade Velodrome, Marseille
Kick-off: 21:00 (19:00 GMT)
Weather: Sunny with a slight easterly wind – max 28°C, min 16°C
Referee: Alain Rolland
Touch judges: Alan Lewis (Ireland), Nigel Owens (Wales)
By Marcus Leach