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