Six Nations: France look to overcome their bÃƒÂªte noire
It’s 5pm on a Sunday evening and England have just produced their best performance in years, as a well fancied French side have been put to the sword.
Riki Flutey and Delon Armitage have both confirmed their arrivals on the international scene, Martin Johnson’s future as England manager is secure and the future looks bright for the World Cup winning captain and his troops. Marc Lievremont, on the other hand, is under extreme pressure with few signs of progress and now well into the second year of his tenure.
Fast forward a year and England travel to Paris this weekend with Johnson now the man feeling the strain, and Lievremont being lauded for having developed a squad capable of challenging the big three from the South.
In the past twelve months France have travelled to New Zealand and won, taken apart the world champions South Africa in Toulouse, and then shattered Irish dreams of back to back grand slams in Paris.
There have been more disappointments along the way; a comprehensive defeat in Sydney to end what had been a promising summer tour, and then the thumping in Marseille from an All Black side in a class of their own. However, Marc Lievremont has built up a squad which has overcome the loss of several key players to dominate this year’s Six Nations.
Whilst England have to put up with the heavily criticized Tim Payne due to Andrew Sheridan’s absence, France’s second choice loosehead, Thomas Domingo, looks a dead cert for a team of the tournament. The homogeneity of the squad is frightening, and with the possible exception of fly half, you feel that they have the depth to cover any absences.
So, to this weekend. Can England spoil the party? Or will France record their first win in three years against their biggest rivals?
The odds are stacked against Martin Johnson and his team, but it wouldn’t be the first time that England have overcome the underdogs tag to win against France. The tired, old cliche states that you never know which French team is going to turn up, and although Marc Lievremont’s side appear more consistent, this weekend they will need to prove it against the side who have really had the wood over them in recent years.
Lievremont chose to make just one change to his team after Sunday’s hammering of the Italians, with the new star of French rugby, Mathieu Bastareaud, coming back into the side in place of David Marty for le crunch. Although a very private individual, Bastareaud has found it difficult to stay out of the limelight after his escapades in Wellington last summer, but he has reacted in the best possible fashion with impressive performances against Scotland and Ireland.
However, the key for the French will be whether their hugely impressive pack can dominate England in the way that they have every other team so far. With the best scrum in the tournament, and an improving lineout, especially since the introduction of Julien Pierre in the second row, the English will certainly be tested. Add to that, an athletic yet powerful back row, and Morgan Parra releasing his backs with quick ball, and the task begins to look insurmountable.
So what has Martin Johnson done to counter this? The biggest news is the omission of Jonny Wilkinson from the starting lineup. The Toulon star has looked horribly out of sorts so far in the championship, and his pass into touch against the Scots when England had an overlap was indicative of how things were going for him. In to replace him comes Toby Flood, and although it’s a bold move, the French will be wary of the Leicester fly half, who has a very good record against them.
Northampton duo Ben Foden and Chris Ashton will be expected to provide some attacking spark to what has looked an insipid backline so far, and Mike Tindall will bring experience into the midfield. Simon Shaw, Louis Deacon and Lewis Moody have been recalled into the English pack with Moody taking over the captaincy from the injured Steve Borthwick, whilst Joe Worsley reverts to blindside flanker where James Haskell has been fairly anonymous since his opening day brace against the Welsh.
Realistically, France should have too much for England, and on the basis of what they have produced so far in the tournament, they would be fully deserving of a fifth grand slam in thirteen years. However, it is the unpredictability of this tournament that makes it so special, and England will be desperate to spring another surprise on Saturday evening.