Planet Rugby

Preview: France v England

30th January 2014 18:18


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

Forthcoming Fixtures
All times are local
Aviva Premiership
Friday , November 28
Bath vs Harlequins19:45
Saturday , November 29
Leicester Tigers vs Wasps15:00
Exeter vs Saracens16:30
Sunday , November 30
London Irish vs Gloucester13:00
London Welsh vs Northampton14:30
Newcastle Falcons vs Sale Sharks15:15
More Aviva Premiership fixtures
International Match
Saturday , November 29
Wales vs South Africa14:30
England vs Australia14:30
More International Match fixtures
Guinness PRO12
Friday , November 28
Munster vs Ulster19:35
Cardiff Blues vs Treviso19:35
Saturday , November 29
Zebre vs Edinburgh15:00
Leinster vs Ospreys17:15
Connacht vs Scarlets19:30
Sunday , November 30
Glasgow Warriors vs Dragons16:00
More Guinness PRO12 fixtures
Top 14
Saturday , November 29
Toulon vs Clermont Auvergne14:45
Oyonnax vs Bordeaux-Begles18:30
Lyon vs Montpellier18:30
La Rochelle vs Bayonne18:30
Castres vs Racing Metro Paris18:30
Toulouse vs Grenoble20:45
Sunday , November 30
Stade Francais vs Brive18:00
More Top 14 fixtures
Recent Results
All times are local
Aviva Premiership
Sunday , November 23
Saracens 24 - 31 NorthamptonSaracens vs Northampton Report
London Welsh 5 - 26 Leicester TigersLondon Welsh vs Leicester Tigers Report
More Aviva Premiership results
International Match
Georgia 35 - 24 JapanGeorgia vs Japan Report
More International Match results
Guinness PRO12
Treviso 24 - 24 LeinsterTreviso vs Leinster Report
Edinburgh 28 - 13 Cardiff BluesEdinburgh vs Cardiff Blues Report
More Guinness PRO12 results
Aviva Premiership
Saturday , November 22
London Irish 23 - 33 BathLondon Irish vs Bath Report
Exeter 31 - 15 WaspsExeter vs Wasps Report
More Aviva Premiership results
International Match
Italy 6 - 22 South AfricaItaly vs South Africa Report
England 28 - 9 SamoaEngland vs Samoa Report
France 13 - 18 ArgentinaFrance vs Argentina Report
Wales 16 - 34 New ZealandWales vs New Zealand Report
Scotland 37 - 12 TongaScotland vs Tonga Report
Ireland 26 - 23 AustraliaIreland vs Australia Report
Romania 18 - 9 CanadaRomania vs Canada Report
More International Match results
Aviva Premiership
Friday , November 21
Harlequins 12 - 16 Sale SharksHarlequins vs Sale Sharks Report
Newcastle Falcons 20 - 10 GloucesterNewcastle Falcons vs Gloucester Report
More Aviva Premiership results
International Match
Fiji 20 - 14 USAFiji vs USA Report
More International Match results
Guinness PRO12
Dragons 12 - 38 MunsterDragons vs Munster Report
Ulster 25 - 16 OspreysUlster vs Ospreys Report
Connacht 43 - 3 ZebreConnacht vs Zebre Report
Scarlets 19 - 9 Glasgow WarriorsScarlets vs Glasgow Warriors Report
More Guinness PRO12 results
Aviva Premiership
Sunday , November 16
Leicester Tigers 21 - 21 SaracensLeicester Tigers vs Saracens Report
Wasps 71 - 7 London WelshWasps vs London Welsh Report
More Aviva Premiership results
International Match
Ireland 49 - 7 GeorgiaIreland vs Georgia Report
More International Match results
Aviva Premiership
Saturday , November 15
Sale Sharks 36 - 8 London IrishSale Sharks vs London Irish Report
More Aviva Premiership results
Aviva Premiership Table
5Leicester Tigers821