England will be hunting a fifteenth successive victory on the international circuit when they take on France in the Six Nations this Saturday.
Not since October 3, 2015, have they tasted defeat as this remarkable turnaround in fortunes sees them enter this Championship as hot favourite.
Ireland might have something to say about that while it’s also a year of hope for Scotland and France, with Wales and Italy not so fancied.
Eddie Jones and Dylan Hartley stressed at the tournament launch of their focus being solely on les Bleus, which is believable following the showing they put in against New Zealand late last year. That was a French outfit we haven’t seen for a long time that looked a real threat.
Reaching those levels from the outset would certainly rock England back onto their heels but this is a side under the demanding Jones that has passed test after test. Players are maturing, depth is growing; make no mistake this is an English squad closing in on the All Blacks.
They will be further encouraged by the fact they have not lost at Twickenham in the Six Nations since Wales were the visitors in 2012, a run of eleven straight wins, with another win equalling their best ever home sequence in the history of the Championship set between 1911-1921.
Factor in France’s poor recent record on the road in the Six Nations – winning only once away from home since 2014 – and many are pointing towards an England victory that would set them up nicely for their trip to Wales, who will not find things easy against Italy this weekend.
Injuries have unfortunately been the overriding talking point though leading up to this match, with England missing the Vunipola brothers, Chris Robshaw, Anthony Watson and George Kruis, while France find themselves without the quality of Wesley Fofana. All are notable setbacks.
Yet both have named impressive sides and will look to mix their styles, with England’s power game complimented by pace and excellent distributors. France meanwhile should have the edge at scrum time, especially late on while they possess a backline that is crying out for ball.
If all of those ingredients come to the fore at Twickenham then spectators are in for quite a match as France look to capitalise on a somewhat depleted, yet still strong, English side. This, however, is a home team that seems further driven by each game they win, with Jones and his staff creating of culture that has them as the team to beat this Six Nations. France will have first crack but may come up just short.
Players to Watch
For England: It is fair to say all eyes will be on Dylan Hartley after his return from a recent ban. Viewed as a natural leader by Eddie Jones, Hartley comes back into the side despite having no game time since December 9, such is the faith his coach has in him. Jamie George has been putting in solid performance after solid performance at Saracens so the pressure’s on Hartley to play a clean, hard game.
For France: After announcing himself to those who didn’t know much about him in November against New Zealand, Baptiste Serin gets the nod ahead of Maxime Machenaud as reward for continuing that form in Bordeaux-Bègles colours. If Guy Novès wants to employ an expansive, heads-up style then he’s done the right thing in picking Serin, whose ability to create for others will keep England’s honest.
Head-to-head: The midfield battle promises a great deal as a now settled Owen Farrell and Jonathan Joseph partnership goes toe-to-toe with Rémi Lamerat and Gaël Fickou. All boast a line-breaking threat and are key to their team’s hopes.
One feels it’ll be imperative from an England perspective that Farrell stamps his authority on the game from the off to allow Joseph to display his qualities, while on the flip-side, a strong showing from the classy Lamerat would give Fickou chances to cut loose which he of course has done in the past against England.
2016: England won 31-21 in Paris
2015: France won 25-20 in Paris
2015: England won 19-14 in London
2015: England won 55-35 in London
2014: France won 26-24 in Paris
2013: England won 23-13 in London
2012: England won 24-22 in Paris
2011: France won 19-12 in Auckland
2011: England won 17-9 in London
Prediction: Expect France to give a good account of themselves but it’ll be a home win at Twickenham on Saturday. England by six.
England: 15 Mike Brown, 14 Jonny May, 13 Jonathan Joseph, 12 Owen Farrell, 11 Elliot Daly, 10 George Ford, 9 Ben Youngs, 8 Nathan Hughes, 7 Tom Wood, 6 Maro Itoje, 5 Courtney Lawes, 4 Joe Launchbury, 3 Dan Cole, 2 Dylan Hartley (c), 1 Joe Marler
Replacements: 16 Jamie George, 17 Matt Mullan, 18 Kyle Sinckler, 19 Teimana Harrison, 20 James Haskell, 21 Danny Care, 22 Ben Te’o, 23 Jack Nowell
France: 15 Scott Spedding, 14 Noa Nakaitaci, 13 Gaël Fickou, 12 Rémi Lamerat, 11 Virimi Vakatawa, 10 Camille Lopez, 9 Baptiste Serin, 8 Louis Picamoles, 7 Kévin Gourdon, 6 Damien Chouly, 5 Yoann Maestri, 4 Sébastien Vahaamahina, 3 Uini Atonio, 2 Guilhem Guirado (c), 1 Cyril Baille
Replacements: 16 Clément Maynadier, 17 Xavier Chiocci, 18 Rabah Slimani, 19 Arthur Iturria, 20 Loann Goujon, 21 Maxime Machenaud, 22 Yoann Huget, 23 Jean-Marc Doussain
Date: Saturday, February 4
Kick-off: 16:50 GMT
Referee: Angus Gardner (Australia)
Assistant Referees: Glen Jackson (New Zealand), Marius van der Westhuizen (South Africa)
TMO: Peter Fitzgibbon (Ireland)