Preview: France v England

Date published: August 21 2015

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France and England meet again for the 101st edition of Le Crunch, with a collective 26 changes having been made from last weekend.

Jonny May is England's only remaining player from the 19-14 victory while Scott Spedding, Louis Picamoles and Yoann Maestri survive for France, as Stuart Lancaster and Philippe Saint-André reassemble their line-ups.

Last week's XVs felt experimental but there will be less of that in Paris. France have reunited Wesley Fofana and Mathieu Bastareaud in midfield and restored Yoann Huget and Noa Nakaitaci to the wings.

Sébastian Tillous-Borde, Bernard le Roux and Guilhem Guirado all face England again having started in the final match of the Six Nations back in March.

The most interesting addition though has to be Frédéric Michalak. The Toulon playmaker is just four points shy of becoming France's record all-time points scorer and should achieve that on Saturday given Saint-André hasn't selected a goal-kicking scrum-half.

Michalak is only making his second start in two years for France and while he can be described equally as both talented and erratic, his versatility to cover scrum-half and fly-half holds extra value when trimming down Rugby World Cup squads to 31.

Should his pack be able to back up their dominance at the scrum from Twickenham then Michalak will get an easier ride. Eddy Ben Arous, first-choice hooker Guirado and arguably first-choice tighthead prop Rabah Slimani all return to the front-row.

Whether Michalak is the right man for France is up for debate – after all he is their fourth number ten in as many games – but they desperately need to lift their confidence and execution levels.

France kicked aimlessly too often last Saturday and decided to move the ball through the hands more often in their own 22 than in England's half. Other than powering their way over off a rolling maul for Fulgence Ouedraogo's score, their try-scoring threat was at a minimum.

Improving their finishing is currently the biggest need of all. France cannot afford to keep wasting chances and need a win more than most Test sides, even if it comes in a warm-up match, to boost their confidence after two wins from six matches this year.

England's focus is less about the result and more on how their top players go on their first outing of the season.

Lancaster has opted for his best available pack, the only point of contention being James Haskell over Tom Wood, and after England coughed up penalties at the scrum a week ago the onus will be on the forwards to respond.

Ben Youngs, George Ford and Jonathan Joseph were all outstanding during the Six Nations and return in Paris, as does Mike Brown.

The full-back's concussion issues have subsided but even so, his return will be watched closely to make sure there are no reprecussions and more importantly to see how he responds to a strong performance from Alex Goode in that position last Saturday.

Last year England were pipped to the post in Paris through Gaël Fickou's late try and went on to win their next four matches in the 2014 Six Nations, but missed out on the title and a possible Grand Slam because of that early slip.

Ten of the team that lost that day will return to the Stade de France on Saturday for the first time since then looking to right that wrong.

Players to watch: 

For France: Saint-André has opted to give Louis Picamoles another run at number eight after the Toulouse star looked back to his rampaging best at Twickenham. A genuine colussus, his line-breaking carries make France far more of a threat, but he has to build his match fitness and Saturday is another chance to do that. Noa Nakaitaci should keep England busy defensively with his pace and footwork too out on the wing having shaken off a niggle.

For England: Close attention will be paid to Mike Brown but with Dylan Hartley missing the tournament the most pressure is on Tom Youngs. Now the clear number one, Youngs is dynamic in the loose but his line-out throwing has left something to be desired in recent games for England and is his one downfall. With enough time in camp working with Joe Launchbury and Courtney Lawes and the rest of England's jumpers this really shouldn't be an issue, but the proof will be in Saturday's game. 

Head-to-head: France welcome back arguably their most talented player in Wesley Fofana, and thankfully at inside centre rather than out on the wing. Fofana said on Thursday that he "strongly believes" France will win and his slick sidestepping ability should give England's Luther Burrell plenty to contend with.

Burrell needs a strong outing to convince Stuart Lancaster that he is worth including in the final group of 31 after the way Sam Burgess and Henry Slade went last weekend. Burrell has been a regular for England in the last two Six Nations, including five starts this year, but worries over his defence have hurt his prospects even though he offers England plenty of physicality in attack. With England keen on Burgess for his leadership and Slade being flexible enough to operate as a third fly-half, Burrell needs to stand out.

Team news: France have made 12 changes to the team that lost to the English at Twickenham a week ago, with Yoann Maestri, Louis Picamoles and Scott Spedding the only players to keep their places. Michalak will link up with Toulon team-mate Sébastien Tillous-Borde in the half-backs, while Mathieu Bastareaud and Wesley Fofana combine in the centres.

Chris Robshaw is one of 14 changes to the England starting-line up, with try-scorer Jonny May retained. Robshaw forms the back-row alongside James Haskell and Billy Vunipola that started the final Six Nations match against France, with 12 of that XV lining up in Paris.

Previous results: 

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
2010: France won 12-10 in Paris
2009: England won 34-10 in London
2008: England won 24-13 in Paris

Prediction: France could certainly do with a win and playing at home should strengthen their chances, but the return of so many of England's top players and the uncertainty around Michalak maybe gives the visitors a slim edge. Backing them to win in Paris isn't farfetched either having won on three of their last five visits to the Stade de France. England by 3.

The teams:

France: 15 Scott Spedding, 14 Yoann Huget, 13 Mathieu Bastareaud, 12 Wesley Fofana, 11 Noa Nakaitaci, 10 Frédéric Michalak, 9 Sébastien Tillous-Borde, 8 Louis Picamoles, 7 Bernard le Roux, 6 Damien Chouly, 5 Yoann Maestri, 4 Pascal Papé (c), 3 Rabah Slimani, 2 Guilhem Guirado, 1 Eddy Ben Arous.
Replacements: 16 Benjamin Kayser, 17 Vincent Debaty, 18 Uini Atonio, 19 Alexandre Flanquart, 20 Yannick Nyanga, 21 Rory Kockott, 22 Rémi Talès, 23 Gaël Fickou.

England: 15 Mike Brown, 14 Jack Nowell, 13 Jonathan Joseph, 12 Luther Burrell, 11 Jonny May, 10 George Ford, 9 Ben Youngs, 8 Billy Vunipola, 7 Chris Robshaw (c), 6 James Haskell, 5 Courtney Lawes, 4 Joe Launchbury, 3 Dan Cole, 2 Tom Youngs, 1 Joe Marler.
Replacements: 16 Jamie George, 17 Mako Vunipola, 18 David Wilson, 19 Dave Attwood, 20 Nick Easter, 21 Danny Care, 22 Danny Cipriani, 23 Billy Twelvetrees.

Date: Saturday, August 15
Venue: Stade de France, Paris
Kick-off: 21:00 local (20:00 BST, 19:00 GMT)
Referee: Jaco Peyper (South Africa)
Assistant Referees: Johnny Lacey (Ireland), Marius Mitrea (Italy)
TMO: Simon McDowell (Ireland)

by Ben Coles

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