Revenge is in the air…it somehow always is when England play France, but Sunday's battle in Paris has taken on a whole new dimension.
Revenge is in the air…it somehow always is when England play France, but Sunday's Six Nations battle in Paris has taken on a whole new dimension.
In many ways the clash at the Stade de France will represent a crossroads for both teams. In light of the news coming out of Canberra this week, one certainly gets the feeling this weekend could make or break Stuart Lancaster's international coaching career.
It all sounds very dramatic but le Crunch will ultimately be the acid test of whether the 'new' England have managed to progress under the interim coach since the 'old' side bowed out of the World Cup to a very similar French side.
Some of the England players who managed to escape the axe – Ben Foden notably – have already spoken of Sunday being a chance to take revenge for that defeat, which prompted wholesale change in the English setup.
It's worth taking a moment to cast our minds back to that fateful day at Eden Park when les Bleus blitzed Martin Johnson's men early on to take a 16-0 lead by the half-hour mark. The result was essentially settled before the teams swapped ends.
Judging by France's first three games in the Championship, we're unlikely to see a repeat as they have struggled to get out of the starting blocks. The first twenty minutes against Italy, Scotland and Ireland saw the men in blue do little more than tackle before stepping it up gear and dominating in the second half.
The French staff have admitted to having tried numerous solutions – even arriving at the stadium earlier than usual – without success. If team selection is anything to go by, we're in for another slow start as the hosts have picked a kicking fly-half to counter England's tactic of trying to occupy territory in the early stages of their games on the road.
The visitors should have no excuse for not starting with gusto as they look to expel the frustration from that oh-so-close loss to Wales a fortnight ago and at the same time capitalise on France's short turn-around after their Irish battle (which was cut from six to four days after Philippe Saint-AndrÃ© sent his players home to 'recharge' with their families).
Indeed, the visitors will have a point to prove after coming with a hairsbreadth of taking the lead in the Championship standings at Twickenham. What would the naysayers be telling us if Courtney Lawes had held onto that ball thus preventing Scott Williams from racing away for a late winner? Would that result have been enough to convince the RFU that Lancaster is good enough for the permanent job?
An improvement it was, but some stats just cannot be ignored and they paint a sorry picture for Lancaster's team: just two tries (both from charge downs) and just three line-breaks in as many games. They've kicked more possession than any other side and have poorest tackling numbers in the tournament – not exactly a shining example of the team ticking all the boxes.
So, clearly, England aren't the most exciting team on the block. But does that mean they can't beat France? Not by a long shot.
Scotland are a classic example of how impressive statistics do not necessarily equate to positive results and if England play to the strengths of the personnel at their disposal and continue to build on the positives of their performance against Wales, then they have every reason to believe they can win in the French capital.
If they try to play loose and fast, slinging it about and risk giving the French loose ball with which to counter, they will lose. Manu Tuilagi and David Strettle both came desperately close to scoring at Twickers, proof that all is not wrong. If England have the confidence to back their structures, and bring the attacking threats of Chris Ashton and Ben Foden into the picture a bit more, tries can be scored.
Most importantly, they must match the French pack at the breakdown, which they failed to do in Auckland. If Lee Dickson is provided with quality ball, then they can count on Manu Tuilagi to punch a few holes and Owen Farrell to land his penalties.
For the French, their Six Nations title hopes are on the line as they must win to force a decider against Wales a week later. After last week's draw with Ireland, defeat will mean the start to the Saint-AndrÃ© era will be considered a failure.
Motivation is never an issue when two of the fiercest rivals in world rugby face off, but with so much at stake this time, tension will run higher than ever. It promises to be an enthralling battle.
Players to watch:
For France: In his first three games in charge Saint-AndrÃ© resisted the temptation to fiddle with his backline, insisting on the need for continuity, which makes the selection of Lionel Beauxis at fly-half all the more significant. PSA is adamant that it has more to do with tactics than the form of FranÃ§ois Trinh-Duc, who has be grilled in the French press over the last month. Beauxis has not exactly been brilliant off the bench either but is the perfect man for the role handed to him on Sunday. There are few players who can kick the ball further – or more accurately – than the Toulouse ten and England would be ill-advised to give him too many chances to use his cannon of a boot. Also keep an eye on Clermont centre Wesley Fofana, who has scored three tries in his first three Tests. You couldn't ask before a better start to an international career!
For England: The last time England visited the Stade de France, hooker Dylan Hartley and prop Dan Cole, where taken off at half time after the English scrum was massacred. Both players have spoken of using Sunday as a chance for redemption. “I can still picture it. I can still see those scrums,” said Hartley. “There are some demons to exorcise. It is inexcusable for an English pack to be pushed back on our own ball.” Coles added that it was the “toughest rugby experience” he's ever had. France's scrum is as strong as ever, so we'll find out if the English youngsters have upped their game.
Head-to-head: If you love the sight of big guys running into each other, you're in for a treat when Manu Tuilagi lines up against AurÃ©lien Rougerie. It's a significant battle since both play significant roles for their respective teams. Tuilagi was England's most dangerous runner against Wales and should once again spearhead their attack in Paris. Rougerie is the 'captain' of the French backline but is coming off two disappointing performances: he missed five out of fourteen tackles at Murrayfield and it was his pass that Tommy Bowe intercepted for Ireland's first try last Sunday. The 74-Test veteran has seen it all before, but will have to be on top of his game to stop the visitors' Samoan battering ram.