This weekend, England kick off their 2020 6 Nations campaign against France, an opening game that holds plenty of weight as arguably their toughest away match of the whole tournament. France have named a very young squad with plenty of potential but, over recent years, potential is all they’ve had. Could this be the year they realise it?
England are returning to competitive international rugby for the first time since a fantastic world cup, albeit a disappointing final, and will certainly have something to prove.
It’s a new look back row for England with Billy Vunipola not available, traditional second rower Courtney Lawes shifts to the blind side flank, Tom Curry moves to number 8 and Sam Underhill plays in his usual position on the openside. Any team that loses a player like Billy Vunipola will miss his ball-carrying prowess, and his ability to draw defenders in and offload in the tackle to get over the gain line.
A more familiar back line will no doubt be able to exploit front foot ball if they can get it, but will this new pack composition be able to give them a platform on which to create? Carries from Kyle Sinckler and Sam Underhill may be key. England will also look to bring Tuilagi in to run hard lines off Ford in order to get things moving early in the phases.
A few key match-ups to mention; Mohamed Haouas has a tough introduction to international rugby up against an experienced Joe Marler. Could scrum time be an area where England can use their experience to turn the screw? Another key area is between two debutants in Furbank and Bouthier, who start at 15 for their respective teams. Both have been in good form for their clubs, but this is a big step up to international level. England have great kicking options in Ford, Farrell and Daly who may look to put pressure on the new man.
As per the cliche, it’s difficult to say which French team will show up on the day. They field the youngest squad in the tournament, selected by a brand new coaching team. There is no denying the potential of this young side, particularly the back line which includes an exciting half back partnership in Dupont and Ntamack of Toulouse, an equally mouth-watering midfield of Fickou and Vakatawa, not to mention two class wingers in Teddy Thomas and Penaud.
Like England, if they are able to get a foothold on the game up front, there will be plenty of weapons out the back to punish most defences. Perhaps the scariest element of the new set up for the French is in the coaching room, in the form of Shaun Edwards. He has been able to mould every team he has worked with into a strong defensive unit, something France have lacked in recent years. If they can front up on Saturday, England could be in for a real challenge.
But, and it’s a big but, their experience, compared to the World Cup finalists they host is limited. When they get their backs against the wall on this big stage, where will the leadership come from? They have a new captain in Charles Ollivon who boasts a not so whopping 11 caps. Even with all the talent on display it seems that if England put together a sturdy performance, they should have more than enough to get past the French.
By Edward Francis