Six Nations Key Clash Preview: France v England


Are there any tougher places for England to play Test rugby than Paris? South Africa, perhaps. Or New Zealand. But Paris is a brutal place. And this year, Le Crunch kicks off the Six Nations for both France and England.

No matter what the other nations may think – and Wales and Ireland could have some reason to feel aggrieved as they are as likely to be challenging for the title at the business end of the Six Nations – this is the draw card of the tournament. It will set the tone for the rest of the competition.

To steal a phrase from MasterChef’s Gregg Wallace – ‘it doesn’t get taffa than this’.


Injuries have done their best to savage the best-laid plans of Philippe Saint-Andre. Even a week of well-deserved R&R from the rigours of domestic rugby for Les Bleus’ players – while Italy captain Sergio Parisse and Ireland’s Jonny Sexton were among the band of foreigners obliged to play Top 14 rugby last Saturday – can’t hide the fact that there’s no Thierry Dusautoir, no Sofiane Guitoune, no Remi Tales, no Florian Fritz, no Camille Lopez, no Jonathan Pelissié.

Let’s not forget, also, that Les Bleus had a poor Six Nations last year, a lousy summer against New Zealand and a lacklustre autumn, and ended 2013 with wins against only Scotland and Tonga.

But England should not take this apparently seriously wounded beast lightly. Wesley Fofana and Mathieu Basteraud are the fast and the furious midfield of a lightning-quick France backline. Yoann Huget, Maxime Médard and Brice Dulin can cut through defences like a blue-white hot ballbearing through runny butter, and the pack – with or without Dusautoir – is a monster, ready to dish out some serious pain.

Coach Philippe Saint-André, meanwhile, is giving Stade Français young fly-half Jules Plisson his first cap. He will form an inexperienced halfback partnership with Toulouse’s Jean-Marc Doussain.


Stuart Lancaster has surprised one or two pundits by doing just what coaches claim they do. He’s only gone picked his squad on form. Which means there’s no place for either Ben Youngs or Chris Ashton, who had been on borrowed time, anyway, and would probably have slipped down the pecking order earlier if Marland Yarde had not succumbed to injury.

Quins’ unpredictable, but potentially brilliant, Danny Care starts at scrum half, while Ashton’s right wing slot goes to the uncapped Jack Nowell, of Exeter Chiefs. Luther Burrell also gets his chance to don the white of England after having to bide his time in the autumn, when many were calling for his inclusion.

It looks like a big gamble – but Lancaster is not a man who makes such decisions lightly. He has a gameplan, and he has picked the players – on form – he believes are best equipped to deliver it. If he thinks his young charges are ready for the challenge, it’s a pretty safe bet that they are.

All eyes on

It’s considered good form to name a player from each side here – instead, all eyes should be on the two packs.

Saint-Andre’s forwards make up a mighty unit. They’ll be out to batter the lighter and more manoeuvrable England pack from the first whistle until the last. Much of how the visitors will perform will depend on how the forwards handle the power of the French.

They know it, too. In an interview with The Guardian, lock Courtney Lawes said: “They’re going to want to dominate us physically and beat us.”

Low cunning, then, will be just what the England coach has ordered. And his forwards have plenty of that. They certainly will not want to make the same mistakes as they did at the Millennium Stadium last year.

Head to head: Mathieu Bastaraud and Wesley Fofana v Luther Burrell and Billy Twelvetrees

The battle in the middle of the park is mouth-watering to say the least. Toulon’s turbo-powered prop-in-disguise Mathieu Bastaraud is immense, but Northampton’s newcomer Luther Burrell is no shrinking violet and clearly loves a bit of bosh. Expect early hits that register on the Richter scale as the two aim to prove a point or two.

Meanwhile, Wesley Fofana, France’s midfield rapier next to Bastaraud’s blunt object, has been in astonishing form for Clermont, and rarely lets his standards slip in the blue of France. Twelvetrees has arguably the toughest job of all the backs – keeping the flying Fofana honest. Can he do it? Lancaster thinks so. He’s not often wrong.


France always win the Six Nations that follows a Lions tour. This is the way of things. To do that this year, they have to win Le Crunch first up, then come back to Paris to beat Italy before heading to the cauldron that is the Millennium Stadium to meet Wales. Then it’s Scotland in Edinburgh before Ireland head to Stade de France.

It ain’t going to happen. And it ain’t going to happen from the outset. France are big and strong and quick, but England are big and strong and quick… and as organised as they have ever been. This will be close, but as long as Stuart Lancaster’s young guns can cope with the pressure of Stade de France, they should have the edge… Just. England by 5.

By James Harrington (@blackmountained)

Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images

20 thoughts on “Six Nations Key Clash Preview: France v England

  1. I don’t think it’s necessarily about whether Englands young charges can perform in the ‘Cauldron de France’, but rather more whether the French Charges can do it.

    The French fans like to be vocal, both in support and condemnation, if they can handle that then they’ll be more dangerous. If they can’t then sides can run amok.

    France are dangerous and cannot be overlooked.

  2. I rather think that the Stade de France can cause France as much pain as any visiting team, if they (France) do not get off to a good start. To answer the question at the top of the article, I believe England have tougher venues in Cardiff, Dublin and even Edinburgh. Lets not forget that whilst most teams really prize a good result there, England have a very good record in Paris.

    I would guess (I don’t know this and can’t be bothered to check) that they have won there more than they have lost since the 90’s.

    I believe that France’s biggest problem is that they know that England have a good record in Paris, and that they come with no fear. Because of this I think that France’s forwards tomorrow are picked to nullify England rather than batter them. In effect I believe it is a defensive mindset as opposed to an offensive tactic.

    The centres do worry me. BUT I would rather lose through the brilliance of Fofana, or defensive muddles around stopping Bastareaud, than not give Burrell (May and Nowell) the chance to live the game at the top.

    After all, if not now, then when?

    1. Agree with your view on it’s a selection to nullify England, e.g. the battering monster lock is on the bench, the lanky lineout guy (to attempt to nullify Lawes) starts.

  3. ‘like a blue-white hot ballbearing through runny butter’

    Best description of the French back 3 I’ve heard… Worryingly accurate as well.

    We have discussed the team endlessly, debated the wiseness and folly of each selection. Just one thing left to add: Come on England!

  4. Areas of concern:
    – Cole Vs Domingo. Domingo seems to to have his number, be interesting to see how they go under the new rules. Any ascendency is going to really get the crowd going as well.
    – Scoring 3 pointers only may not be enough, can we score some tries? Not sure we’ll keep them tryless with the firepower they have.

    Don’t think PSA will still be the coach by the time of the RWC and this will be another nail in the coffin, England by 5.

  5. I agree that France are unlikely to win, although they only have one really tough away game in Wales. The whole ‘France always win after the Lions’ trope which everyone keeps rolling out (guilty) won’t hold up much as England are decidedly Lion free this 6 Nations. 2 in the starting line up, 2 on the bench, and none of those were test starters (apart from Youngs in Test 2).

    Eng should (theoretically) look comparatively fresh stood next to Wales and Ireland.

  6. ‘France will be looking to batter England’s lighter pack’.All the stats I’ve read say that England have the bigger set of forwards.Can anyone out there clarify this please?

    1. From a squad weights point of view France have the lightest set of forwards in the championship by some margin.

      6 forwards on the bench may also be down to a fitness concern against England’s very athletic (and large) pack. If the plan was brute force only then surely the likes of Tolofua and Galan would be in the mix (who were primarily responsible for the physical mismatch against Sarries at Wembley)

  7. What worries me is that if England lose, Lancaster will immediately return to type and pick goode ashton barrit et al(consider what happened to Charlie Sharples after Australia) again when we need to being putting faith in the youngsters and giving them a really good run of games
    Someone reassure me?

  8. Expect the packs to be relatively even, but am concerned that the French just have more in midfield. 12T tackling concerns me. I am concerned that the French will squeak this one with some majestic backplay coming through from their DNA. I hope that I am wrong!

  9. “Are there any tougher places for England to play Test rugby than Paris?” – I’d put in an honourable mention for the Millenium Stadium at the moment.

    I don’t understand what you mean about this being the draw card of the tournament? Are you going purely on audience size? If so then understood – it’s certainly not the most significant match of the tournament based purely on rugby and how it will affect the title – that will be Ireland v Wales in the Aviva.

    “If he thinks his young charges are ready for the challenge, it’s a pretty safe bet that they are.” – I’m sorry to keep picking on lines but seriously? Tomkins, Sharples…. I think his selections have been pretty mixed in terms of them being successful. He still hasn’t found the backline to solve his problems and waiting for Manu isn’t a good enough excuse.

    “They certainly will not want to make the same mistakes as they did at the Millennium Stadium last year.” – yes, and even if they cut out the mistakes they will still get soundly beaten if they come up against a France team that plays as well as Wales did in that match. Let’s not rewrite history.

    I’m going France by 5 – home advantage, a mixed England backline and surely France have to click at some point?

    1. I disagree- think Tomkins is the exception to Lancaster’s good selection policy. Only really him and Dowson haven’t stepped up and done a job. Sharples had a good couple of games to start! Compare that with new selection of Farrell, Launchbury, Vunipola x2, Marler, Tom Youngs, Robshaw, Morgan, 12T, Barritt (yes I am mentioning Barritt- he did the job required of him at the time), Yarde, Wade, Eastmond. Hell even Goode has looked the business in a few matches.

      I call that a pretty good return on selecting uncapped players.

  10. Thanks for clearing that up.Don’t journalists annoy you? Yes Matt,it leaves me wondering what the French have planned and I can’t wait!

  11. I put France by 3, not cause i’m french, but only because we are never better when everyone is betting against us. And also let’s face it, in the H Cup, the Saracens got their ass kicked by Toulouse the other day…

  12. I actually expect a close win for France. I think England’s pack is slightly better than France’s forwards, but France has, in my opinion, much better backs than England. I really like the French backs and England will have trouble with them. I don’t think England will solve their creativity and scoring problems with this back line, at least in this match. I actually expect the opposite, I think they are going to struggle with their inexperience and lack of playing time with each other.

    England will kick penalties and France will score tries. However, it should be a really ugly, gritty, and tight encounter. A war of attrition.

  13. Totally agree with sy, don’t think this selection will pay dividends now but maybe looking forward it could prove important…..??

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