By Deputy Editor Alan Pearey
ENGLAND are 1-5 on to win the Six Nations and evens to claim a first Grand Slam for a decade – but such odds cut no ice with Will Carling.
Abject as France have been ahead of Saturday’s visit to Twickenham, the former England captain sees only a flashing danger light for Stuart Lancaster’s side.
“It’s the worst possible scenario for England. France will be unrecognisable from the first two games,” he says. “The pressure is off and that’s when they’re at their most dangerous and when they tend to perform. They could just come and surprise us and be superb – that’s very French.”
France are reeling after losing their first two championship games for the first time since 1982. Fly-half Freddie Michalak has paid for his lethargy, giving way to Francois Trinc-Duc in a team showing eight changes from a fortnight ago. Morgan Parra is installed as scrum-half and Wesley Fofana – who scored a try against everyone bar Wales in last year’s tournament – returns to his favoured centre position from the wing.
During the heart of his 72-cap England career, Carling was on the winning side against France on eight successive occasions. But he never once took the field against them without fear in his bones.
“It wasn’t a physical fear, it was a fear of being humiliated. If they were in the mood, they could destroy you,” he says.
“Test rugby is pretty intense but against, say, Scotland or Ireland you might have five minutes where the concentration wasn’t quite as intense. But against France that could never happen. You had to watch them every second, for a quick lineout or an attack from behind their line. They had not only the mindset but also the ability to do it.”
For all that, Carling believes England are in a good place right now, and thinks their own selection tweaks are spot on: Dylan Hartley and Courtney Lawes come in for Tom Youngs and James Haskell up front, while centre Manu Tuilagi returns for Billy Twelvetrees after impressing off the bench in Dublin.
“Dylan offers a bit of experience and technical ability. The French are the most powerful scrummagers in the championship, and the lineout and scrum areas will be crucial.
“Courtney has a great physical presence and is a hell of an athlete; he also provides an extra lineout option. And when Manu’s on form he gives us intent and direction. He will counter Mathieu Bastareaud. So all those changes are fairly logical.”
Despite not starting in Rome, Bastareaud tops the chart for most defenders beaten in this championship, having bashed and battered his way through nine opponents. His collisions with Tuilagi will be but one attraction in a match Carling thinks will go the way of the hosts.
“England have struggled for eight or nine years to find a game plan but this is the most coherent team since the World Cup winners of 2003, and it shows the most potential.
“If they’re in the right frame of mind, have the right attitude and the right amount of fear, then they’re good enough to win. But every game is a huge hurdle, both physically and mentally. Especially when you’re English.”
Will Carling (@WillCarling) will be hosting a Twitter Q&A from 1-2pm this Friday, ahead of the big game. To get involved, submit your questions using the hashtag #AskCarling. He’s also hosting a Q&A every Monday from 12.30-1.30pm to discuss the weekend’s action.