It’s that time of year again. Le Crunch comes at the most crucial time, with England in chase of the championship and France in search of respect. Neither were at their best a week ago, but if you had to pick between the two, the clear choice looks to be England, especially at home. France are notorious for being party spoilers, however, and if ever a reaction was in line it would be now. On paper a 29-0 win is great guns, on the field the story was much different.
Stuart Lancaster has kept the faith with his starting side, with a lone change in the second row where Geoff Parling is recalled at the expense of Dave Attwood. Surprisingly the Bath lock is left out altogether, with Nick Easter’s mobility and handling skills preferred on the bench. It seems a harsh call on Attwood, but at least there is a modicum of logic behind it seeing as England need to score points. Kieran Brookes will sit beside Easter, with Henry Thomas ruled out after undergoing shoulder surgery during the week. Dan Cole wins his 50th cap for England. It’s amazing to think he’s still only 27.
Thankfully Philippe Saint-André has shown restraint this week, with only two changes necessitated by injury, though they have not come without controversy. Camille Lopez is out, whether injured or otherwise depends on who you ask, and Jules Plisson will step into the no10 jersey. Eddy Bes Arous has also been ruled out, but despite Thomas Domingo’s recall into the squad it’s Vincent Debaty who moves up to loosehead. It’s somewhat of a strange move given Debaty’s effectiveness as in impact sub, made even more bizarre by the preference of Rabah Slimani as loosehead cover on the bench, with Uini Atonio recalled as tighthead reserve. What was the point of Domingo again?
It’s strange to come to this match thinking it might be one-sided, and surely that won’t be the case. England were guilty of getting ahead of themselves against Scotland, they can’t make that same mistake again. On a dry day at Twickenham the French are as dangerous as anybody, and Plisson gives them more of a running threat than Lopez. With Gaël Fickou lurking in the midfield and Mathieu Bastareaud ready to rumble in reserve, this is far from fait accompli.
Look for England to show up with greater accuracy in the first half, taking the French forwards on at the set piece to try and open space for the backs. If George Ford can chip a few points over and keep his team in front heading into the break, the opportunities out wide might come in the second half. Expect France to make it difficult, maybe agonizingly so, but England will get the job done. Take the home side by 12, but will it be enough for the title?
ENGLAND vs FRANCE
Saturday, March 21, 17:00 GMT, London
Referee: Nigel Owens (WRU)
Assistants: John Lacey (IRFU) & Leighton Hodges (WRU)
TMO: Ben Skeen (NZRU)