Planet Rugby

Preview: France v England

30th January 2014 18:18

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Six Nations Captains Pascal Pape of France and Chris Robshaw of England pose for a photo

Le Crunch: No love lost

New faces are set to add extra spark to an old rivalry as England travel to Paris on the opening weekend of what is set to be an intriguing Six Nations Championship.

Indeed, new selections have dominated the headlines in the build up to le Crunch as some bold, and some enforced, changes have given both of Saturday's protagonists a fresh look.

There will be three debutants at kick-off - Jules Plisson, Jack Nowell and Luther Burrell. France have another on their bench in Antoine Burban. Jonny May has just one cap to his name, Alexandre Flanquart and Henry Thomas have just two while Bernard le Roux, Rabah Slimani and Gael Fickou have only three each. (France field a more experienced starting XV with a total of 354 caps compared to England's total of 286.)

It's hoped that all that fresh blood will bring a sharper attacking edge to two teams that have failed to ignite imaginations for a long time, but the high-stakes nature of this game is likely to result in another arm-wrestle.

The pressure will be squarely on the home side. Unlike England, who have the luxury of playing both Wales and Ireland on home soil, defeat for France will likely end their title hopes. Beyond the need for points on the Championship table, les Bleus are desperate for a positive result as Philippe Saint-André's team try build some momentum after a wretched 2013.

England certainly can't be accused of being overly cautious. The selections of Nowell and Burrell to play in an arena as intense as the Stade de France are bold calls, though not without merit. Nowell illustrated in the Heineken Cup double header against Toulon that he isn't afraid of the big stage - nor will be England's other new cap.

May might eclipse both of them when it comes to impact, the Gloucester flyer adding his searing pace to an England back division that appeared to be stagnant in last year's tournament. Stuart Lancaster has not held back, and dropping Chris Ashton epitomises that - there must have been a temptation to retain his experience at Test level. By leaving him out, Lancaster shows that he is not afraid to gamble. Marland Yarde and Christian Wade would no doubt have been selected if fit. This England squad certainly isn't dull.

For all the change to England's backs, their pack is reassuringly solid and consistent. Joe Marler gets the nod over Mako Vunipola but both are excellent young players. England have two outstanding hookers, with Dylan Hartley preferred this time round. Hartley has bounced back from the shameful low of being sent off in the Premiership final and missing the Lions tour more impressively than many expected. He is now integral. Courtney Lawes and Joe Launchbury will roam; young and athletic enough to make plays but now wise enough to run a successful line-out.

The key addition though for England is Billy Vunipola. The reason the tries dried up in 2013 were because England lacked the runners to get them over the gain line. Not anymore - with Burrell, Vunipola, Tom Wood, Chris Robshaw and the second row pairing all being natural ball carriers. The impact England can bring off the bench in Tom Youngs, Mako Vunipola and Ben Morgan continues that trend.

For France, personnel changes are perhaps less welcome as the losses of fly-half Rémi Talès and flanker Thierry Dusautoir represent a major spanner in the works. Plisson has been groomed for the big stage but he is being thrown into the deep end far earlier than had ever been hoped. Le Roux comes nowhere near to filling the enormous gap left by the absent skipper and must be considered the weak spot in the French pack.

And it's the pack that counts. For the all noise made about England's midfield and France's fly-half, the battle is - once again - set to be decided up front.

In anticipation of England's set-piece and aerial onslaught, Saint-André has specifically picked Flanquart - in an all-Stade Français second row - for his strength in the air at line-outs and restarts.

England have a 5kg weight advantage amongst the forwards and could well have the upper hand in the tight-loose. But the French scrum, led by an experienced front row, will test England's youthful unit.

Doubt lingers over how England's new personnel and combinations will handle the occasion, but Lancaster has named a strong, solid side. If the visiting pack can hit the heights of last November, then England could make it a hat-trick of wins over their great rivals.

Players to Watch:

For France: If you're good enough, you're old enough...or so the saying goes. Saint-André insists that he has no doubts 22-year-old Jules Plisson will cope with the pressure of making his debut against France's fiercest rivals, but told Thursday's press conference that he was keeping the fly-half away from the media because he wanted the youngster to "stay concentrated." This may be his first cap, but the Stade Français playmaker has been part of the French set up since the start of the PSA era, having been brought into group to learn the ropes with an eye on the future. His time has now come, even if it is a little earlier than initially planned. Meanwhile, skipper Pascal Papé wins his 50th Test cap.

For England: 26-year-old Luther Burrell has gone from warming the bench at Sale Sharks to producing bulldozing runs in the Heineken Cup for Northampton. His rise is down to hard graft, with his size ensuring that England will not miss Manu Tuilagi too much in midfield. His confrontation with Mathieu Bastareaud will be seismic.

Head-to-head: Speaking of earth-shaking hits, look out for the clash between two of the most destructive forces in Europe, Louis Picamoles and Billy Vunipola. Both number eights are key players in creating go-forward ball for their respective teams, especially on what is likely to be a wet surface. The defensive numbers sucked in to stop potential rampages could open up gaps elsewhere.

Previous results:
2013: England won 23-13 at Twickenham, London
2012: England won 24-22 at Stade de France, Paris
2011: France won 19 -12 at Eden Park, Auckland
2011: England won 17-9 at Twickenham, London
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

Prediction: You have to go back to the amateur era to find the last time England managed back-to-back Championship wins in the French capital. They won three in a row in 1990, 1992 and 1994 at the Parc des Princes but have only won three times since at the Stade de France. It's a tough one to call, so tough that we couldn't agree on who to back.Ben Coles says England by 5 - Ross Hastie says France by 3

The teams:

France: 15 Brice Dulin, 14 Yoann Huget, 13 Mathieu Bastareaud, 12 Wesley Fofana, 11 Maxime Médard, 10 Jules Plisson, 9 Jean-Marc Doussain, 8 Louis Picamoles, 7 Bernard Le Roux, 6 Yannick Nyanga, 5 Pascal Papé (c), 4 Alexandre Flanquart, 3 Nicolas Mas, 2 Benjamin Kayser, 1 Thomas Domingo
Replacements: 16 Dimitri Szarzewski, 17 Yannick Forestier, 18 Rabah Slimani, 19 Yoann Maestri, 20 Antoine Burban, 21 Damien Chouly, 22 Maxime Machenaud, 23 Gael Fickou

England: 15 Mike Brown, 14 Jack Nowell, 13 Luther Burrell, 12 Billy Twelvetrees, 11 Jonny May, 10 Owen Farrell, 9 Danny Care, 8 Billy Vunipola, 7 Chris Robshaw (c), 6 Tom Wood, 5 Courtney Lawes, 4 Joe Launchbury, 3 Dan Cole, 2 Dylan Hartley, 1 Joe Marler
Replacements: 16 Tom Youngs, 17 Mako Vunipola, 18 Henry Thomas, 19 Dave Attwood, 20 Ben Morgan, 21 Lee Dickson, 22 Brad Barritt, 23 Alex Goode

Date: Saturday, February 1
Venue: Stade de France, Paris
Kickoff: 18:00 (local, 17:00 GMT)
Weather: 7°C. Chances of rain
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales)
Assistant Referees: Alain Rolland (Ireland), Stuart Berry (South Africa)
TMO: Jim Yuille (Scotland)

By Ross Hastie and Ben Coles

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