Thomas Castaignede has dismissed claims the Autumn Nations Cup final has become a farce and warned England not to underestimate the new-look French team that will run out at Twickenham on Sunday.

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France cannot pick up to 25 players under an agreement between the French Federation and the Top14 clubs and while that has seen the England match branded a farce, Castaignede believes it is the “stupidity” of the rugby calendar that should be the target of anger and frustration.

With Fiji having to forfeit three pool games due to 29 players testing positive for COVID-19 and the French selection determined by a three game maximum for the players, the tournament has lurched from one bad headline to another and Sunday’s final – in front of 2,000 fans who will be allowed into Twickenham – is being portrayed an unsatisfactory conclusion rather than a battle between Europe’s top two nations.

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Castaignede, the 54 times capped French international, fundamentally disagrees and despite the absence of world class talent including scrum-half Antoine Dupont, captain Charles Ollivon and centre Virimi Vakatawa, he is backing the youthful 31-man squad assembled by head coach Fabien Galthe, to cause England serious problems by proving French rugby has real strength in depth.

France will not include any of the starting XV that beat Eddie Jones’ men 24-17 in their opening Six Nations match in February but Peato Mauvaka, Cameron Woki and Matthieu Jalibert, who were replacements for that win, are in contention for this weekend, along with Brice Dulin and Clermont’s powerful wing Alivereti Raka.

Castaignede told RugbyPass: “It is easy to say it is a farce, but we have some potential and I wouldn’t be so nasty with the French team.

“We have the Top 14 matches playing at the same time as the internationals and that is completely crazy. It is not the fault of the Federation or the clubs it is the stupidity of the calendar of international rugby and it needs to be solved. It is important to remember that we knew we would arrive at this situation and that is just the way it is. It is strange because the best French team will not be on the field.

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“England do well at the moment with a good kicking game, but in terms of attack they are not as threatening as they used to be one or two years ago and this game could be very close in what we can call the COVID Cup.

“It is good to see new players delivering at the highest level but to have England v France without the top players available is very strange and that kind of fixture should be played in the best possible circumstances.

“French rugby has more depth than a few years ago and opponents now have a bit more stress when they play against France and that is good. The young players are not that far away from the top level and I have been very surprised by some of them including Baptiste Pesenti, the second row from Pau and Matthieu Jalibert from Bordeaux Begles. These guys are maybe five per cent away and it important to get chances to play at the highest level.

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“I don’t see why those players even if they are not first choices could not create some trouble for England. It is never easy to beat Italy and in the first half the players found their feet and in the second they improved and I can see there is something special arriving in French rugby at the moment. There is more consistency and depth.”

Castaignede is full of praise for the impact former Wales defence coach Shaun Edwards has made in the same role with France, particularly in the Nations Cup where the team has shown constant change. “He is a genius,” he added. “I played against his Wasps team when I was at Saracens and he never smiled or said Hello. You know he has anger inside of him and that is what he did with me. He is there to work hard and does what he says.”

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