Le Crunch is always a fascinating match. France’s despondent displays so far have robbed fans of what could have been a Grand Slam decider, but that does not detract from the significance of Saturday’s game. Twickenham will be baying as England’s fans smell blood in the water – but one must always beware a wounded French beast. With a re-jigged line-up they look a much better team, and arguably the last couple of matches now count for nothing as it is an almost unrecognisable side. England, meanwhile, are going about their business confidently and look like a team that are comfortable in themselves. It is set to be a tremendous tussle at Twickenham.
Reasons to back England
They are settled. France have made eight changes to their line-up coming into the game, while England have made just three, one of which was down to illness. Even these three are not really shaking things up, such is the togetherness of the squad. Tuilagi and Hartley had been regular starters before losing their places to injury and a ban respectively, while Courtney Lawes has been around the squad for a while now, despite being usurped in the starting line-up by Joe Launchbury. Having the two of them on the pitch at the same time gives England another level of physicality and dynamism, and they will look to ruffle the feathers of France’s new half-back partnership.
Owen Farrell is probably in the form of his life right now. He showed against Scotland that he is not afraid to take the ball to the gain-line, and his pass for Geoff Parling’s try was a thing of beauty. Against Ireland he adapted marvellously to the conditions, and controlled the game in a way that he opposite number, Ronan O’Gara, has been doing for years. That adaptability stands him in good stead to deal with whatever comes his way, and England can be confident that they can rely upon him.
England have built up an impressive depth in their squad. If you look at the bench, most of the names there have had a stint as first choice in their position. This does not mean that they are not good enough any more, it merely means there is someone playing better than them in their position. What this will do is spur them on to work harder and endeavour to play better. Competition for places is all well and good, but when the players sitting on the bench know what it is like to start – that is ideal. Just look at Dylan Hartley. He has stated how tough it was to sit on the bench watching Tom Youngs, and he duly stepped it up. Now he starts, and Youngs must respond. It is a great place for England to be in.
Reasons to back France
Quite simply, they cannot get any worse (can they?!). To describe their performance against Wales as lacklustre would be doing them a favour. They were nothing better than dour. So Philippe Saint-André has been forced to ring the changes, and the team now looks significantly better. Francois Trinh-Duc is an out-and-out fly-half, unlike Michalak, who hadn’t even been playing there for his club side. Morgan Parra is one of the best scrum-halves in the world, and is the very definition of that old cliché ‘little French general’. Maxime Machenaud did not take his opportunity to force himself into the number one spot and it is frankly surprising that it took this long for Parra to start.
The biggest plus for France, however, comes in the centres. The most gifted player on the pitch will finally get a chance to play in his favoured position. It baffled most spectators as to why he was stuck out on the wing, where his greatest talents – picking a line and offloading – were nullified. Especially when the Maxime Mermoz was looking so pedestrian. As it is, England will have to be right on the money in defence or Fofana’s blistering acceleration and eye for a gap will punish them. Expect to see lots more of him than you have in the first two rounds, because if France have any sense they will get the ball to him.
Top plays bottom; unbeaten plays yet to win. Foregone conclusion? Far from it. A France team with no pressure on it is the most dangerous type of France team, and that is exactly what will be turning up at Twickenham. England are settled and have looked a high class team at time, but there is an undercurrent of world-class talent in this French team that has the potential to hurt any team. That said, it will be too big-an ask for this new look team to come to Twickenham and win. It won’t be the runaway win many might have predicted pre-team announcements, but England should still have too much. England by 5.
By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43