By Sarah Mockford, Rugby World Features Editor
PARIS IN the springtime (well nearly). That’s the venue for this weekend’s RBS 6 Nations tie between France and England – the first time the two sides have met since Les Bleus knocked Martin Johnson’s men out of the World Cup in October. Both sides have new coaches in charge now – Philippe Saint-Andre in the blue corner and Stuart Lancaster in the white – so what can we expect when the two sides meet at Stade de France on Sunday afternoon?
A FEW STATISTICS
- England’s unchanged first XV contains 197 Test caps – less than a third of France’s 623.
- England’s starting players are on average four years younger than France’s – 25.5 years compared to 29.6.
- France haven’t lost at the Stade de France in ten championship matches, but England are the last side to beat them there in the Six Nations: 24-13 in 2008. In fact, England have won four of their last five games against France in the Six Nations.
- If England triumph in Paris it would be the first time they have won three away games in the championship since the Six Nations began in 2000.
THE KEY AREAS
As a reaction to last weekend’s 17-17 draw with Ireland, Saint-Andre has changed his half-back pairing, bringing in Lionel Beauxis and Julien Dupuy for Morgan Parra and Francois Trinh-Duc. The newcomers should bring a more pragmatic approach to France’s game and expect to see Beauxis playing for territory with his boot rather than Les Bleus running the ball from the first whistle.
Beauxis and England’s Owen Farrell are both accurate goalkickers, but France have the best disciplinary record in this year’s Six Nations, conceding just 16 penalties compared to England’s 31, so the Toulouse man is more likely to be given the opportunity to build a lead for his team than Farrell.
Kicking aside, Farrell must build on his strong performance against Wales, particularly where England’s attack is concerned. He and Lee Dickson, who will no doubt be put under pressure by Dupuy, need to ensure the back-line has some quick ball to play with so they can get Manu Tuilagi across the gain-line and bring the back three into the game for the first time in 2012.
France will be looking to assert their authority at scrum time with their front of Jean-Baptiste Poux, Dimitri Szarzewski and Nicolas Mas vastly more experienced than England trio Alex Corbisiero, Dylan Hartley and Dan Cole. France also have the benefit of simply participating in more scrums in this Six Nations – 23 in their three games compared to only ten by England – and they’ve won every single one.
England No 8 Ben Morgan is at his best when given a solid scrum platform from which he can burst forward and capitalise on his speed and power; if England’s scrum is put under pressure then their attacking game will immediately be put on the back foot.
The French haven’t excelled in terms of attacking rugby to date but they still have the ability to turn on the style when they choose and have scored seven tries in their three games while England have managed two, both Charlie Hodgson charge downs.
France’s discipline means England can’t rely on Farrell’s boot and if they are to win in Paris they need to show the same passion and determination that they did against Wales but step up another level in attack.
Ben Foden, Chris Ashton and David Strettle, who have had a minimal impact on the championship to date, need to get more involved in the game. They should be looking for more work themselves by coming off their wings or counter-attacking from deep while the likes of Farrell and Tuilagi can also bring them into the attack earlier with offloads and short balls in midfield.
If France get a strong foothold up front it could be a tough afternoon for England, but I’m backing Chris Robshaw to give as good as they get and, in fact, I think there could well be a second stalemate in Paris in as many weeks. Yes, I’m going for a draw!
FRANCE v ENGLAND, STADE DE FRANCE, SUNDAY 11 MARCH, Kick-off 3pm, Live on BBC1
FRANCE: Clement Poitrenaud; Vincent Clerc, Aurelien Rougerie, Wesley Fofana, Julien Malzieu; Lionel Beauxis, Julien Dupuy; Jean-Baptiste Poux, Dimitri Szarzewski, Nicolas Mas, Pascal Pape, Yoann Maestri, Thierry Dusautoir (captain), Julien Bonnaire, Imanol Harinordoquy.
Replacements: William Servat, Vincent Debaty, Lionel Nallet, Louis Picamoles, Morgan Parra, Francois Trinh-Duc, Maxime Mermoz.
ENGLAND: Ben Foden; Chris Ashton, Manu Tuilagi, Brad Barritt, David Strettle; Owen Farrell, Lee Dickson; Alex Corbisiero, Dylan Hartley, Dan Cole, Mouritz Botha, Geoff Parling, Tom Croft, Chris Robshaw (captain), Ben Morgan.
Replacements: Rob Webber, Matt Stevens, Tom Palmer, Phil Dowson, Ben Youngs, Charlie Hodgson, Mike Brown.
Referee: Alain Rolland (Ireland)