Preview: England v France

Date published: March 20 2015

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The most prolific attacking team in the Six Nations might have to chase the points against the best defence at Twickenham.

England's hopes of claiming the Six Nations title could well come down to their ability to overhaul Wales or Ireland, and while France have been desperately disappointing this season, their defence has been one of the few bright spots.

Stuart Lancaster's team left at least three tries on the field against Scotland, and they could well pay the price if they are profligate this weekend.

For all les Bleus' many worries – and the preparation for Le Crunch has not gone smoothly – they have conceded just two tries all tournament, one fewer than England let in at home to Italy.

Given their struggles in attack, that has made for some less entertaining encounters, a far cry from the exciting French teams of the 80s and 90s.

England, on the other hand, have 11 tries to their name, and seem to have no trouble creating chances, with the exception of their underwhelming display in Dublin.

They bounced back well against Scotland, despite trailing at half-time, and George Ford seems to be comfortable pulling the strings. Going up against the inexperienced Jules Plisson, he will be charged with more of the same, especially if England have a target to reach.

The loss to Ireland could have seen England out of contention for the title, but with Wales hanging on in Cardiff last week, Lancaster's side have a four-point advantage over the Irish and 25 over the Welsh coming into the final weekend.

We have to mention that France can still win the tournament as well, but realistically that eventuality should have already disappeared long before kick-off at Twickenham.

What les Bleus could do is guarantee a top half finish for the first time under Philippe Saint-André, but that would need an eight-point win. While that doesn't sound a lot, it would match their biggest-ever win over England at Twickenham, all the way back in 1951.

Given France's terrible record in South West London, Lancaster will be optimistic of a first Six Nations title after three times finishing as runner-up.

He's made one change to his starting line-up for Saturday with Geoff Parling getting the nod in the second-row. His experience will be invaluable, and he looks to be right back in contention for a World Cup spot. The decision to bring in Nick Easter as second-row cover is more of a gamble, and an early knock to either English lock could prove problematic.

As for les Bleus, well Saint-André has stuck with 13 of the men who won 29-0 in Italy, with only the injured Eddy Ben Arous and Camille Lopez missing.

Vincent Debaty gets the nod at loosehead in place of Ben Arous, and will have to prove he is more than an impact player, especially with two tightheads on the bench.

Meanwhile Plisson is back at ten, although most of the attention over the last couple of days has been on the man he is replacing. Lopez is apparently struggling with knee ligament issues, but the medical staffs of France and his club Clermont Auvergne have very different views on whether he should be playing.

That controversy is set to run, with Clermont boss Franck Azéma accusing the French set-up of either 'lies or incomptence'. It remains to be seen whether France will be able to forget about that and focus on the task at hand.

If they can, they might yet prove stubborn opposition, even to Lancaster's free-flowing England side.

Players to watch:

For England: Making his 50th appearance at the age of 27, Dan Cole has enjoyed a productive championship despite coming into the tournament a little short of game time. This weekend he will come up against a French side that has often troubled him in the set-piece, with arguably his poorest display on the Test arena coming in Paris in 2010. Lucky for him, Philippe Saint-André has left out Thomas Domingo, whose small stature seems to cause Cole problems. Instead Vincent Debaty gets the nod. He's better known for his work around the field and Cole will fancy his chances of getting the upper hand in the scrum. If England can get that platform, expect to see more from Jack Nowell. The Exeter man is already top of the pile for clean breaks in the Championship, despite starting just two games, and he'll be eager to make up for last year's difficult debut at the Stade de France.

For France: One of the shining lights in the gloom of Rome, Scott Spedding produced his best performance of the Six Nations so far to help France to victory. The Bayonne full-back has shown he can stand out at Test level, but so far his best performances have come against Fiji and Italy. While Philippe Saint-André surprisingly seems to have him inked in as first-choice for the World Cup ahead of the consistently excellent Brice Dulin, this will be Spedding's chance to show he can perform against a top tier side. Meanwhile Le Crunch will give Jules Plisson another shot at cementing the French fly-half jersey a year after making his debut against the same opponents. Plisson was on the winning side that day but struggled to kick on. This year he has impressed for Stade Français and made a good impression in Italy. Another win against the English will be more of a challenge however.

Head-to-head: Courtney Lawes was back with a bang last week, putting in a number of shuddering tackles, and treating Finn Russell like a rag doll at one point. The Northampton lock is really fulfilling his potential, and can lay down a marker against another powerful second row this weekend. Yoann Maestri is a year older than Lawes, and hasn't had quite the same hype around him coming through the ranks, but he has established himself as one of the few definites in the French team. After a season where he looked to have run out of gas thanks to too many games for club and country, he has bounced back well this year, and looks a prime candidate to take over the French captaincy next season. While Lawes is the more athletic of the two, Maestri will keep putting in the tackles and hitting the rucks. The winner of their battle could play a large role in who emerges victorious on Saturday.

Previous results:

2014: France won 26-24, Stade de France, Paris
2013: England won 23-13, Twickenham, London
2012: England won 24-22, Stade de France, Paris
2011: France won 19-12, Eden Park, Auckland
2011: England won 17-9, Twickenham, London
2010: France won 12-10, Stade de France, Paris
2009: England won 34-10, Twickenham, London
2008: England won 24-13, Stade de France, Paris
2007: England won 14-9, Stade de France, Paris
2007: France won 22-9, Stade Vélodrome, Marseille
2007: France won 21-15, Twickenham, London
2007: England won 26-18,  Twickenham, London

Prediction: England have a great record against France at Twickenham, and having looked comfortably the better team so far in the Championship. Having said that, their set-piece creaked at times against Scotland, and they haven't always taken their chances. France sometimes look like they've never met each other in attack, but they have been tough to break down and did a number on the Italian pack last week. England should win, but it might be closer than people expect. England by 7!

The teams:

England: 15 Mike Brown, 14 Anthony Watson, 13 Jonathan Joseph, 12 Luther Burrell, 11 Jack Nowell, 10 George Ford, 9 Ben Youngs, 8 Billy Vunipola, 7 Chris Robshaw (c), 6 James Haskell, 5 Courtney Lawes, 4 Geoff Parling, 3 Dan Cole, 2 Dylan Hartley, 1 Joe Marler
Replacements: 16 Tom Youngs, 17 Mako Vunipola, 18 Kieron Brookes, 19 Nick Easter, 20 Tom Wood, 21 Richard Wigglesworth, 22 Danny Cipriani, 23 Billy Twelvetrees

France: 15 Scott Spedding, 14 Yoann Huget, 13 Gaël Fickou, 12 Maxime Mermoz, 11 Noa Nakaitaci, 10 Jules Plisson, 9 Sébastian Tillous-Borde, 8 Loann Goujon, 7 Bernard le Roux, 6 Thierry Dusautoir (c), 5 Yoann Maestri, 4 Alexandre Flanquart, 3 Nicolas Mas, 2 Guilhem Guirado, 1 Vincent Debaty.
Replacements: 16 Benjamin Kayser, 17 Rabah Slimani, 18 Uini Atonio, 19 Romain Taofifenua, 20 Damien Chouly, 21 Rory Kockott, 22 Jules Plisson, 23 Mathieu Bastareaud

Date: Saturday, March 21
Venue: Twickenham, London
Kick-off: 17:00 GMT
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales)
Assistant Referees: John Lacey (Ireland), Leighton Hodges (Wales)
TMO: Ben Skeen (New Zealand)

By Paul Eddison

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