England v France: Six Nations preview as Les Bleus to edge Red Rose and keep title hopes alive
After a solid start to the Steve Borthwick era, now comes Le Crunch.
There was disappointment in the opener for England as they went down to Scotland, once again losing the Calcutta Cup to their old rivals, but they responded with victories over Italy and Wales.
While improvement has been slight, it does look more promising for the Red Rose as they aim to put themselves in a position to be realistic Rugby World Cup challengers.
Borthwick has certainly improved aspects of their forward pack – a huge weakness in 2022 – while the performances of 23-year-old Ollie Lawrence have been a huge plus for the English.
With Manu Tuilagi lacking form, the unearthing of Lawrence has provided a focal point in midfield, something Marcus Smith will look to utilise this weekend.
The big story heading into the match revolves around Smith and Borthwick’s decision to select the Harlequins at fly-half ahead of captain Owen Farrell, who drops to the bench. It is a brave call from the new head coach but an understandable one given Farrell’s lack of form, especially off the kicking tee.
Against a side as good as France, it is an opportunity for Smith to show that he should be the Red Rose’s pivot heading into the World Cup.
England also just about remain in title contention and their contest with the French on Saturday will decide who potentially has a shot at silverware going into the final weekend.
Of course, a bonus-point victory for Ireland, combined with a win without a bonus-point in the encounter at Twickenham, will end any hopes the English and French have going into Round Five.
Although that would be a particular disappointment for the visitors, considering their Grand Slam-winning campaign in 2022, a win of any type on Saturday would still be important as they look towards their home World Cup.
Fabien Galthie’s men have struggled for form in this year’s tournament, with their set-piece and carrying game failing to get the same purchase in 2023, and the head coach knows they need to improve.
This would be a good time to show it, given their rivalry with England and the fact they have remarkably not beaten the Red Rose at the ‘home of rugby’ since 2005. Ordinarily, France would be heavy favourites but, with their poor record in London and their mediocre performances recently, it is a match which looks set to go to the wire.
Where the game will be won
France have not dominated physically like they consistently did during last year’s Six Nations. There have been periods of being on the front foot, but they have been unable to sustain it. At the start of the matches against Italy and Scotland, they overwhelmed their opponents, making it easy for Antoine Dupont at the base of the ruck, while in Ireland they were extremely competitive against Andy Farrell’s men, but their intensity decreased as the games went on.
It almost led to shock defeats to the Italians and Scots, and it is something they must rectify heading towards the World Cup. In the past, you would say it was a fitness and conditioning issue, but it is not something that has been labelled at this current French set-up. However, if they don’t start well and England are able to win the contest at the breakdown – an area England have been strong in over the past two games – then Les Bleus may well head towards another defeat at Twickenham.
Equally, their kicking out of hand has been poor – again a facet which the Red Rose have tended to excel in despite their other issues – so they must find a way of controlling field position better. France’s defence bailed them out against Scotland, but it takes its toll if you are making 150+ tackles a match. Dupont takes on most of the kicking responsibilities but perhaps they need to look to Romain Ntamack and Thomas Ramos to help out and relieve the pressure on the great scrum-half.
Last time they met
What they said
England head coach Borthwick revealed his reasons for selecting Smith ahead of Farrell at fly-half.
“Every kicker has small dips and the great kickers always come back and improve their percentage,” he said.
“I consider every aspect and you’d expect me to do that. I try to do this job as thoroughly as possible.
“Owen’s been kicking brilliantly in training this week, as has Marcus. There are wider aspects to be considered within this game and gameplan, not simply the goalkicking.
“If you were to track all the teams I’ve selected there have been some pretty bold decisions. I’ve tried to pick the right team for that game, I don’t consider how it will be perceived by the outside.
“Owen has been brilliant, as he always is. He trains brilliantly and he leads this team fantastically well, whatever role he’s playing.”
France are expecting a stern challenge from Smith and co. as Les Bleus look to claim their first win over England at Twickenham since 2005.
Flanker Francois Cros, speaking to L’Equipe, said: “It will be very difficult. England had a slow start to the Championship, no doubt because of their change of coaching staff, but they seem to be hitting their stride and improving.
“They have a strong pack, with a very active front-row and a back row that is good at slowing down ball.
“In the backs they have some really interesting players with the No.12 (Ollie Lawrence) has made a brilliant start to the tournament, and Freddie Steward who is very good under the high ball.”
Players to watch
Just one place to start and that’s at fly-half. No one quite expected it but, full credit to Borthwick, he is willing to make the big calls and decided to select Marcus Smith at fly-half ahead of Farrell. The head coach plays a more conservative game plan but, equally, he is looking for the player who can deliver that role and, as things stand, Farrell has not performed his job effectively enough.
The 31-year-old at his best does the basics slightly better than the Harlequins star, but Smith has improved all elements of his game and can run a match at the highest level. He is accurate off the tee, kicks well out of hand and his decision-making has improved vastly. Obviously, the youngster will attack the line better and see opportunities that Farrell ordinarily wouldn’t, but it will be about getting that game control right.
Farrell’s absence from the XV also means that the Red Rose have to change their captain, so Ellis Genge is handed the responsibility. Known as a bit of a hothead, it is perhaps a surprise to some, but the loosehead led Leicester Tigers brilliantly under Borthwick last season as they claimed the Premiership title. On that evidence, Genge will do an outstanding job, but the pressure is ramped up even further at Test level.
© Leading from the front.@EllisGenge is in top form at the moment 💪#AwakenAnticipation | #ENGvFRA pic.twitter.com/6NbsDId57e
— Guinness Six Nations (@SixNationsRugby) March 9, 2023
The English prop will be looking to put France’s Dorian Aldegheri under duress, Les Bleus’ third tighthead of the Championship. With Mohamed Haouas and Uini Atonio currently banned, it is a big ask for Aldegheri, but he can at least take some comfort in having his Toulouse team-mates, Cyril Baille and Julien Marchand, alongside him in the front-row. Negating Genge will be seen as a job done but ideally they need to be getting dominance at scrum-time, an area of the English game which still needs work.
It is a French pack which is dominated by Toulouse with five of the forward eight coming from Les Rouge et Noir. Francois Cros is another player from that club to come into the XV – funnily enough, replacing fellow Toulouse back-row Anthony Jelonch – and will look to continue his form from the Scotland encounter. Cros was magnificent off the bench in Round Three and his work rate and abrasiveness will cause the hosts problems.
Behind the scrum, it is a huge game for Romain Ntamack, who has not been anywhere near his best in the 2023 Six Nations. His place was coming under pressure from Matthieu Jalibert and may well have been moved to the bench for his game, only for the Bordeaux-Begles man to suffer an injury in training. France really need a big performance from Ntamack this weekend.
There are a few intriguing battles but the one between the two powerhouse centres, Ollie Lawrence and Jonathan Danty, will be fascinating. Lawrence has always been highly regarded within England but Eddie Jones never really found out, selecting him and then quickly discarding the youngster not long after. The 23-year-old has finally been given a proper opportunity and he has repaid the faith Borthwick has shown in him.
Lawrence will offer go-forward with ball in hand and has also proven to be a reliable defender, but he has his toughest test of this Championship in the French midfield duo. Danty is probably even more dynamic in the tighter exchanges, both in terms of his ball-carrying and his work at the breakdown. If fully fit and on form, the centre will both win turnovers and slow England down in phase play, which is key considering that they have conceded nine tries in three matches.
England are improving and France have rather regressed, while their record at Twickenham over the past two decades is pretty dreadful. However, Les Bleus are still a confident side and have only lost once over the past couple 18 months. With Danty returning from injury a big boost, we fancy them to edge it. France by five points.
2022: France won 25-13 in Paris
2021: England won 23-20 in London
2020: England won 22-19 in London
2020: France won 24-17 in Paris
2019: England won 44-8 in London
2018: France won 22-16 in Paris
2017: England won 19-16 in London
2016: England won 31-21 in Paris
2015: France won 25-20 in Paris
England: 15 Freddie Steward, 14 Max Malins, 13 Henry Slade, 12 Ollie Lawrence, 11 Anthony Watson, 10 Marcus Smith, 9 Jack van Poortvliet, 8 Alex Dombrandt, 7 Jack Willis, 6 Lewis Ludlam, 5 Ollie Chessum, 4 Maro Itoje, 3 Kyle Sinckler, 2 Jamie George, 1 Ellis Genge (c)
Replacements: 16 Jack Walker, 17 Mako Vunipola, 18 Dan Cole, 19 David Ribbans, 20 Ben Curry, 21 Alex Mitchell, 22 Owen Farrell, 23 Henry Arundell
France: 15 Thomas Ramos, 14 Damian Penaud, 13 Gael Fickou, 12 Jonathan Danty, 11 Ethan Dumortier, 10 Romain Ntamack, 9 Antoine Dupont (c), 8 Gregory Alldritt, 7 Charles Ollivon, 6 Francois Cros, 5 Paul Willemse, 4 Thibaud Flament, 3 Dorian Aldegheri, 2 Julien Marchand, 1 Cyril Baille
Replacements: 16 Peato Mauvaka, 17 Reda Wardi, 18 Sipili Falatea, 19 Romain Taofifénua, 20 Seckou Macalou, 21 Maxime Lucu, 22 Yoram Moefana, 23 Melvyn Jaminet
Date: Saturday, March 11
Kick-off: 16:45 GMT
Referee: Ben O’Keeffe (New Zealand)
Assistant Referees: Jaco Peyper (South Africa), Andrea Piardi (Italy)
TMO: Brett Cronan (Australia)
READ MORE: Six Nations: A combined England and France XV ahead of Le Crunch