Match Preview – France vs England
We look at key talking points for France vs England in the Six Nations on Saturday, including French jitters ahead of title tilt, English injuries and France’s sensational talent…
It’s virtually unquestionable France have played the best rugby in the northern hemisphere across the last three years, but so far the trophies to show for it stands at nil.
In both 2020 and 2021, France beat the eventual Six Nations title winners – England in 2020, Wales in 2021 – but failed to land the main prize due to losing other games – Scotland away in 2020, England away and Scotland at home in 2021. Indeed, at least two of those defeats could be characterised as implosions.
In 2022, Les Bleus have negotiated tricky hurdles in the shape of an in-form Ireland in Paris and away Tests vs Scotland and Wales. They did, however, appear distinctly nervous and out-of-sorts in Cardiff.
2022 Six Nations standings
They kicked aimlessly, put boot to ball far more than they have done, knocked on repeatedly, and gave away a catalogue of needless and avoidable penalties. They were fortunate in the end to confirm a 13-9 success against a profligate Wales, who passed up a large number of 22 entries.
As France edge closer to a first trophy success and Grand Slam effort since 2010, they are noticeably timorous, and with an England squad to come who have a point to prove, and Ireland waiting in the wings to nick the title, we may well see an edgy Les Bleus in Paris on Saturday night.
All the more because Ireland play ahead of them, and a win at home to Scotland would move Andy Farrell’s side top of the table before France kick a ball, driving the pressure up once again.
England playing for pride…mixed with pressure
Having gone down to 14 men after just 82 seconds of their Round 4 clash at home to Ireland last week as a result of Charlie Ewels’ red card, England put in an enormous effort to remain in the Test, even levelling matters at 15-15 with 20 minutes to go.
While a home defeat was far from ideal, and most of an English persuasion were hugely disappointed at the full-time whistle, England fans, coaching staff and players alike departed Twickenham proud of their efforts.
The defeat evaporated any chance England had of the title heading to Paris, and so they will pitch up at the Stade de France with not much more than their pride on the line.
Added to that though, there is a real risk that defeat could see England finish the championship as low as fifth. If that were to occur, the positivity from England’s performance in defeat vs Ireland would soon be forgotten.
Eddie Jones’ side finished second-bottom in the Six Nations standings in 2018 and 2021. A third time in five years for the richest union in the world would see Jones come under huge scrutiny, and the players in for criticism too.
As such, England have plenty to play for in the French capital. A losing bonus-point should see them avoid fifth, while a victory will likely see them end in third.
English injuries prove their downfall?
Notwithstanding the fact England head to France with pride to play for and pressure to avoid a poor finish, their lengthy-injury list may well negate the best of intentions.
The latest addition among their casualties is influential flanker Tom Curry, whose hamstring injury against Ireland has ruled him out.
First-choice hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie is already missing due to a knee injury picked up vs Wales in Round 3, while centre Manu Tuilagi is a colossal miss, with his physicality, power and pace transformative for this England team.
The recurrence of Tuilagi’s hamstring injury after seemingly having made a comeback ahead of that Wales Test came as a major blow.
Established wings Anthony Watson (knee) and Jonny May (knee), as well as second row Jonny Hill (ankle), have missed the entire championship through injury, while tighthead Kyle Sinckler has not operated at 100 per cent fitness.
A trip to face France away is supremely difficult at the best of times, but the injuries England have sustained, coupled with French desperation to succeed, may just prove too much for the visitors.
France’s sensational talent and an impassioned home crowd
Though France were far from their best in Cardiff last week, they possess a squad awash with talent.
Their half-backs in Romain Ntamack and Antoine Dupont are perhaps the most skilful pairing in world rugby – the latter crowned 2021’s World Player of the Year – while wings Damian Penaud and Gabin Villiere are exceptional performers.
Indeed, Penaud has consistently been one of the best wingers in the world over the last couple of seasons, while Villiere has exploded onto the scene in recent times and been one of the players of this year’s Six Nations.
Gael Fickou at centre has tremendous ability and can do near enough everything a coach would want from a midfielder, while his partner this year in Jonathan Danty combines big power with pace.
At full-back, Melvyn Jaminet has quickly developed into a key man, both with ball in hand in an attacking sense and off the kicking tee. Though his aerial work is perhaps an area for improvement.
Among the forwards, loosehead Cyril Baille and hooker Julian Marchand have real claims they are the best in the world in their respective positions currently, while tighthead Uini Atonio remains one of the biggest men the sport has ever seen.
Paul Willemse and Cameron Woki have combined to wonderful effect at second row, while No 8 Gregory Alldritt is another standout performer on a world stage. Back-rows Francois Cros and Anthony Jelonch have been more workmanlike, but are important too to the overall machine.
One has only to look at the calibre of players not involved for France – Demba Bamba, Bernard Le Roux, Sekou Macalou, Yoram Moefana, Virimi Vakatawa, Teddy Thomas, Matthis Lebel, Brice Dulin all not even in the squad of 23; Romain Taofifenua, Thibaud Flament and Thomas Ramos held back on the bench – to realise the depth at their disposal.
Home support is huge for France too. New Zealand and Ireland are two of the best sides in the world at present, and it was with phenomenal home support that Les Bleus got over the line vs the Irish in February and All Blacks in November.
The crowd is utterly impassioned in Saint-Denis at present, and they will border on fanatical on Saturday as France play for a Grand Slam. How France – and England – handle that will likely prove significant.
France: 15 Melvyn Jaminet, 14 Damian Penaud, 13 Gael Fickou, 12 Jonathan Danty, 11 Gabin Villiere, 10 Romain Ntamack, 9 Antoine Dupont; 1 Cyril Baille, 2 Julien Marchand, 3 Uini Atonio, 4 Cameron Woki, 5 Paul Willemse, 6 Francois Cros, 7 Anthony Jelonch, 8 Gregory Alldritt.
Replacements: 16 Peato Mauvaka, 17 Jean Baptiste Gros, 18 Mohamed Haouas, 19 Romain Taofifenua, 20 Thibaud Flament, 21 Dylan Cretin, 22 Maxime Lucu, 23 Thomas Ramos.
England: 15 George Furbank, 14 Freddie Steward, 13 Joe Marchant, 12 Henry Slade, 11 Jack Nowell, 10 Marcus Smith, 9 Ben Youngs; 1 Ellis Genge, 2 Jamie George, 3 Will Stuart, 4 Maro Itoje, 5 Nick Isiekwe, 6 Courtney Lawes, 7 Sam Underhill, 8 Sam Simmonds.
Replacements: 16 Nic Dolly, 17 Joe Marler, 18 Kyle Sinckler, 19 Ollie Chessum, 20 Alex Dombrandt, 21 Harry Randall, 22 George Ford, 23 Elliot Daly.