It’s a shame this isn’t a Grand Slam decider, but the game has significantly more interest for me now that Martin Johnson has shaken things up a little.
If he’d have picked the same misfiring fifteen to take on the French, I’d seriously be considering giving it a miss and looking for a different sport to follow.
However, the prospect of Ben Foden and Chris Ashton running with the ball has filled me with excitement once again. I think Mike Tindall will bring some much-needed direction and nous to the backline, Toby Flood is full of promise and Foden and Ashton have real talent. My nagging worry is that they’ll be shadows of the players that we see in Northampton colours, but I have my fingers crossed that they get some ball.
Flood will be aware of all the criticism of Jonny Wilkinson, and he’ll know that spinning it wide rather than hoofing it aimlessly would be a great Personal PR exercise, and there’s absolutely nothing to lose, so we might just see the backs in full flight.
I say ‘might’ because I still have significant reservations over the quality of the English pack. It still lacks any sort of dynamism, and it’s frustrating that Johnno forgot about some of the lumbering, ineffective forwards when he was making sweeping changes this week. Maybe he’d forgotten they were playing because they’ve contributed so little.
There’s no suggestion that they’ll now be able to produce quick ball, and without it, it’s almost irrelevant which players are lining up in the backs. I think a Gallic capitulation is the best they can hope for.
However, I can’t see this French side choking under the pressure. The hard part of their Grand Slam campaign is now done – they’ve won away in Scotland and Wales, and they’ve beaten last year’s champions in Paris. They are clear favourites to make it five from five, and I really don’t think Marc Lievremont will have been losing much sleep over the prospect of this English team turning up on Saturday night.
Morgan Parra and Francois Trinh-Duc are developing into a fearsome half-back combination, and they seem to have a healthy mixture of pace and power in the wider channels.
There is more pressure on the hosts to clinch the Grand Slam, but England play like the weight of the world is on their shoulders anyway, so I don’t think that will make much difference. Their pack is infinitely better, and whilst England has a back row that tends to play like a second row, the French have second rows that play like the back row. With Imanol Harinodoquy – a shoo-in for Player of the Tournament – leading the charge, the French pack will be able to repel the extent of England’s attacking armoury, the backs will have the class to take their opportunities when they arise, and they should win comfortably.
My SportGuru prediction is France by 13.