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Preview: England v France

25th February 2011 06:09

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Thomas Domingo mike tindall 6N 2010

No room for error: It'll be tight at Twickenham

C'est l'heure de la verité. France visit Twickenham on Saturday with the winners of le Crunch likely to be crowned Six Nations champions a few weeks from now.

It might be a little premature to be handing out trophies, but the only unbeaten teams left are the logical favourites for the crown. Certainly for France, victory in London will set up a likely Grand Slam defence as their remaining fixtures see them face Italy before hosting Wales.

Of course a clash between the old cross-channel rivals never comes without a decent side show and Marc Lièvremont kicked off the fun at start of the week with his so-called 'anti-English' comments. I'm still not sure what all the fuss is about...since when was it news that the French aren't particularly fond of les Rosbif?

Once he'd no doubt had a good chuckle after sending the English press into a flat spin, Lièvremont - who is normally a soft-spoken, genuinely polite guy - made sure everyone understood that he has the utmost respect for his hosts on Saturday.

And well he should. England have been the stand out team in Europe since November - lest we forget they beat the same Wallabies that drilled France.

With a settled group that is producing results and scoring tries along the way, Martin Johnson would be forgiven for thinking he's on the right track. Heaven forbid that we mention the World Cup (I just did, didn't I?) but even down South people are taking notice of this team and where it's going. At the heart of it all is the half-back pairing of Toby Flood and Ben Youngs, who have added the extra pace to England's attack that the modern game demands.

But back to the game at hand.

France's defence has been a worry. Les Blues have already let in six tries in their opening two matches and after England's rampant display against Italy, the visitors know all to well they need to tighten up.

Paradoxically it's France's ultra-disciplined approach to the tackle zone that has left them a little vulnerable. The French have hardly been penalised at all in the rucks during this championship but, as highlighted by their defence coach David Ellis, that is a sign that they're not doing enough to slow down opposition ball.

It's simple: Make sure the likes of Chris Ashton don't get quality ball, and they won't be a threat. If push comes to shove, rather give away a penalty than a try.

It's a tactic that seems to have worked for England so far. The men in white have conceded more penalties than any other team this year, and by quite some way, with the majority of them coming at the ruck.

In fact, the French staff have suggested that they will be looking to exploit England's knack of giving away penalties on the deck when under pressure. Back row chargers like Thierry Dusautoir and Imanol Harinordoquy seem like the ideal candidates to ply that sort of pressure and Dimiti Yachvili doesn't miss many from the kicking tee.

But while Dusautoir and Harinordoquy pick themselves, the inclusion of Sébastien Chabal has sparked the usual debate. Is the Caveman just marketing or is he a genuine hard man? The last time Chabal was at Twickenham, when he was the object of a failed experiment on the flank, the Bearded One was nowhere to be seen. He's vowed that there won't be a repeat.

Either way, he's not one to shy away from a battle. And a battle it will be in the purest sense on the word. The fainthearted should stay away.

Players to watch:

For England: Andrew Sheridan returns to the English pack after missing the clash with Italy due to a back injury. The 31-year-old's reputation as England's number one scrummager has been well earned and his contest with Europe's top set-piece unit, and Nicolas Mas in particular, has those who appreciate the heavy-weight stuff salivating. But beyond the scrum, as mentioned above, a lot will depend on who controls the break down and England will look to Sheridan to be one of those who can carry forward momentum into the contact zone. The Sale prop's unlucky run of injuries has led certain pundits to question whether he is still the player he once was. Cometh the hour...

For France: Up until Thursday night Clement Poitrenaud was expecting to be warming pine on the sidelines at kick-off time. But an injury to Toulouse team-mate Maxime Medard has resulted in Poitrenaud being handed a chance to redeem himself after initially being dropped following a below-par performance in Dublin. Occasionally brilliant, sometimes erratic, the 28-year-old is not the guy you would bet your pension on, but he is the kind player that can win a game by creating a try out of nothing. He's the epitome of the stereotype English fans enjoying pinning on French players. His appearance at Twickenham is just what the game needs considering the pre-match banter between the coaches.

Head-to-head: For two teams looking to move the ball at pace, much will rely on the scrum-halves. The opposing nines are in very different situations: While 30-year-old Dimitri Yachvili will win his 50th cap in Bleu in a Test career spanning almost ten years, 21-year-oldBen Youngs' star is still very much on the rise as he earns his only his tenth cap. While Yachvili is being given a rare starting opportunity, the Englishman has become his country's undisputed first choice. While the Frenchman has a reputation for being L'homme qui bat les Anglais (the man who beats the English), Youngs as never played France before ( he didn't make it off the bench last year). Youngs has been instrumental in igniting the English backs over the past few months, but can he match Yachvili's exceptional tactical kicking?

Previous results:

2010 :France won 12-10 at Stade de France, Paris
2009: England won 34-10 at Twickenham, London
2008: England won 24-13 at Stade de France, Paris
2007: England won 14-9 at Stade de France, Paris (RWC)
2007: France won 22-9 at Stade Vélodrome, Marseille
2007: France won 21-15 at Twickenham, London
2007: England won 26-18 at Twickenham, London
2006: France won 31-6 at Stade de France, Paris
2005: France won 18-17 at Twickenham, London
2004: France won 24-21 at Stade de France, Paris
2003: England won 24-7 at Stadium Australia, Sydney (RWC)
2003: England won 45-14 at Twickenham, London
2003: France won 17-16 at Stade Vélodrome, Marseille
2003: England won 25-17 at Twickenham, London
2002: France won 20-15 at Stade de France, Paris

Prediction: It's a very difficult one to call but on current form, and with home support, it's tough to bet against the hosts. England by a point or two.

The teams:

England:15 Ben Foden, 14 Chris Ashton, 13 Mike Tindall (capt), 12 Shontayne Hape, 11 Mark Cueto, 10 Toby Flood, 9 Ben Youngs, 8 Nick Easter, 7 James Haskell, 6 Tom Wood, 5 Tom Palmer, 4 Louis Deacon, 3 Dan Cole, 2 Dylan Hartley, 1 Andrew Sheridan.
Replacements:16 Steve Thompson, 17 Alex Corbisiero, 18 Simon Shaw, 19 Hendre Fourie, 20 Danny Care, 21 Jonny Wilkinson, 22 Matt Banahan.

France: 15 Clement Poitrenaud, 14 Yoann Huget, 13 Aurelien Rougerie, 12 Yannick Jauzion, 11 Vincent Clerc, 10 Francois Trinh-Duc, 9 Dimitri Yachvili, 8 Sebastien Chabal, 7 Imanol Harinordoquy, 6 Thierry Dusautoir (c), 5 Lionel Nallet, 4 Julien Pierre, 3 Nicolas Mas, 2 William Servat, 1 Thomas Domingo.
Replacements: 16 Guilhem Guirado, 17 Sylvain Marconnet, 18 Jerome Thion, 19 Julien Bonnaire, 20 Morgan Parra, 21 Damien Traille, 22 Alexis Palisson.

Date: Saturday, February 26
Venue: Twickenham, London
Kick-off: 17:00 GMT
Weather: 11° C. Chances of light showers
Referee: George Clancy (Ireland)
Assistant referees: Alan Lewis (Ireland), Tim Hayes (Wales)
Television match official: Giulio De Santis (Italy)

By Ross Hastie

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1Ireland58
2England58
3Wales56
4France56
5Scotland52
6Italy50