RBS 6 Nations Preview: England v France

RBS 6 Nations
Date: 26th February 2011
Kick-off: 17:00 (GMT)
Venue: Twickenham Stadium

It must have been a long time since England were described as irresistible but against Italy they were not far from it. Banishing the wastefulness that blighted their match against Wales, England scored eight tries, with wing Chris Ashton helping himself to four to take his tally for the tournament to 6, thus equalling the record of tries in a Six Nations tournament after only two matches. Rarely have England had a team so settled, and make only change with Andrew Sheridan returning in place of Alex Corbisiero, who could consider himself somewhat unlucky. Captain Lewis Moody may have been in contention but will be forced to watch from the side lines after a reccurrence of the knee injury that has kept him out of England’s first two matches.

Whilst many would argue that the French were lucky to leave Ireland with a win, their scrum dominance currently seems without parallel in Europe and they head into this match aiming to repeat last year’s performance against England where a number of penalties in the scrum helped the French to a hard-fought win. Suggestions that Marc Lièvremont has finally settled on his starting XV were once again consigned to the scrap heap when the French coach announced a number of changes for the trip to the English capital. There were recalls for Vincent Clerc, Yannick Jauzion, Dimitri Yachvili and the former Sale number 8 Sébastien Chabal, whilst the on-form Maxime Medard has been ruled out through injury and is replaced by Clément Poitrenaud. The last time the French won at Twickenham they had the kicking of Yachvili to thank and this will not have gone unnoticed by Lièvremont, with the inclusion of Chabal also boosting the power of the French pack.

What to expect:
Ireland showed that the French are certainly fallible, and England will need to play with similar gusto if they are to trouble France. The English back three represent a huge threat and their support lines will have to be watched carefully by France. Ben Youngs and Toby Flood have the ability to control this game, and selecting Chabal ahead of Julien Bonnaire may play into the hands of Youngs who will enjoy the extra opportunity to snipe around the fringes.

The French will attempt to dominate up front, and the selection of Chabal may be a nod to the way in which the South African pack swamped their English counterparts in the Autumn. Jauzion and Aurélien Rougerie forms a powerful centre partnership and will be eager to test themselves against England’s Mike Tindall and Shontayne Hape. Meanwhile Yachvili’s kicking will be heavily relied upon to take advantage of any infringements. With Bonnaire missing, added pressure will be placed on blindside flanker Thierry Dusautoir to perform, both at the breakdown and in the lineout where Bonnaire was extremely adept at stealing opposition ball.

All eyes on:
It is hard to ignore the dominant French front row, and Dan Cole will have to be on his best form to keep the diminutive loosehead Thomas Domingo at bay. Cole endured a torrid time against Domingo and the French last year, as he was hauled off at half time in a bid to halt the tide of penalties against the English scrum. Cole has improved immeasurably since that match and has benefited from fighting Martin Castrogiovanni each week for the Tigers shirt, but a strong performance here is vital. England need a solid platform against this French side and cannot afford to give away easy penalties.

It will have been six years since French scrum half Dimitri Yachvili kicked France to an unlikely 17-18 victory against England at Twickenham, but he will return on Saturday hoping to lead France once again to victory. The selection of Yachvili ahead of Morgan Parra suggests that Lièvremont may be preparing his side for a tough contest up front, and the reliable boot of the Biarritz scrum half has the power to damage the English. If the French scrum continues to win penalties, as they have done throughout the competition, then things could look bleak for England.

Head to head – Ben Youngs v Dimitri Yachvili:
The battle between Youngs and Yachvili will be intriguing, with both expected to offer a contrast of scrum half play. Yachvili, the pragmatist, will control the forwards and offer consistent goal kicking but will rely on fly half Francois Trinh-Duc to provide the creativity to ignite the French backline. Meanwhile the quicker and more dynamic Ben Youngs has been quietly simmering in this Six Nations, threatening to explode before often combining with half back partner Toby Flood. In the absence of Bonnaire, Youngs, the archetypal scrum half sniper, will be a constant threat around the breakdown. The French must make sure they have not forgotten this threat when concentrating on stopping wing Chris Ashton.

Last year’s result: France 12 – 10 England

Leaking scores as they did against Scotland and Ireland does not bode well for France against this English back line, and this match may be a step too far for the French after riding their luck somewhat last week. Yachvili’s kicking will keep France within touching distance, but I believe that the home team will have too much pace for France and England to win by 8 points.

By Tom James